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Q: Is it legal to drive through a red light to make way for the police vehicle?
A: Here’s one of those questions that is very difficult to answer simply. Not only do different states and territories have their own laws on this, there’s conflicting advice from legal and motoring club outlets, as well as some truly grey areas in the law itself.
And for the purposes of this advice, we’ll include all emergency service vehicles including police, fire departments and ambulances.
On the surface, the answer would appear to hinge on what state or territory we’re dealing with. So let’s look at the various jurisdictions:
NSW: It appears that yes, it is legal to drive through a red light at an intersection to give a police car, or any emergency vehicle with its light and/or sirens turned on, the room to pass.
The proviso is that it must be safe for you to do so, and that’s where a degree of blurriness comes into it. As in, what you consider safe and what the police car behind you considers safe may be two very different things.
However, if you were charged with running the red light (say, if the intersection was fitted with a red light camera) you’d stand some chance of defending the charge in court on the basis you were making way for an emergency vehicle on an emergency call-out.
The confusion sets in when you ask NSW’s peak motoring club, the NRMA, the same question. At which point, the club’s website informs us that you should never drive through a red light, and that access is the emergency vehicle’s problem.
VIC: Ambulance Victoria states that never can you run a red light if an emergency vehicle is behind you. Under no circumstances should you break the law, says the Ambulance Victoria website, this includes red light rules.
QLD: The Queensland police say that you may roll into an intersection while facing a red light to make way for an emergency vehicle, and you can even enter the wrong side of the road if necessary to allow access. Again, the condition is that it’s safe to do so.
WA: Is it legal to drive through the red light to make way for a police vehicle in WA? No. And that goes for other emergency vehicles as well. The counter-point in WA, however, is that drivers can also be charged and fined if they make no effort to make way.
TAS: Tasmania’s law is worded very similarly to the WA legislation, meaning, you can’t run the red light for any reason.
SA: In South Australia, it’s legal to pass the red light if it’s safe to do so. But the law also states that if you can stop before the red light to make some room for approaching emergency vehicles, then that’s what you should try to do first.
NT and ACT: Seems as though the greatest confusion is in the nation’s territories. There’s simply nothing we could find (apart from trolling through hundreds of pages of legalese) to suggest there was even an official line on this subject.
So, is it legal to drive through a red light for police in the NT or ACT? We’re not sure.
Sticking with the law for a moment, the waters are further muddied by the law in every state and territory that dictates drivers must comply with instructions from a police officer.
Which in the case of a police car behind you, flashing its lights and the officer waving you through an intersection, could be interpreted as 'roll through the red light and let us past'.
But does this legal statement over-ride the one about red lights if you’re in, say, Victoria? After all, there’s no problem with obeying a police officer on point duty for a traffic light that’s stuck on red, is there?
Then there’s common sense. Pulling to the left and slowing down is the smart thing to do when presented with emergency response vehicles in your mirrors.
Generally speaking, Australian emergency vehicles must use their lights and sirens in any high-speed situation, and rolling through a red light to allow access to police without sirens and lights switched on will very likely to land you in trouble.
And let’s be honest, even in states where it’s deemed illegal, wouldn’t the notion of safely making space for an ambulance to squeeze past you on its way to help an injured person outweigh the impact of the fine for going through a red light? For some people, the answer would definitely be yes.
Clearly, the question of can you run a red light if an emergency vehicle is behind you is anything but cut and dried.
Not only does it ignore the layers of the law (and which ones take precedence) it’s also symptomatic of the fact that road rules in Australia are far from uniform.
It’s a bit like the relatively new Victorian law that dictates a 40km/h speed limit when passing emergency vehicles in Victoria.
As well as excluding tow trucks and roadside assistance vehicles, the rule seems dangerous at best when traffic travelling at 100km/h is suddenly required to slow quickly to 40km/h over a blind crest. The chances of following vehicles piling into each other seems pretty real.
And here’s another tip: When you see in your mirrors a police car, ambulance or fire engine on its way to a call-out, don’t simply make room for it and then resume your original position on the road.
Emergency vehicles – especially fire engines – often travel in pairs, and even though you’ve made room for the first one, the second one might just get you.