This question comes via Facebook and I’m not sure of my correspondent’s jurisdiction, but given the National Road Rules, the jurisdiction won’t matter. The question relates to

… the use of emergency warning devices (lights and sirens). On numerous occasions I have witnessed emergency vehicles moving through traffic and / or intersections whilst turning the sirens on and off and relying on lights alone. I have always been told that if you are responding you are to have both lights and sirens on. If the emergency vehicle is involved in an accident and it was found that they did not have all warning devices on, what would be the possible legal ramifications? Any information would be greatly appreciated.

Given, as I said, I don’t know the jurisdiction from which this question comes I’ll use the Road Rules 2014 (NSW) as my exemplar, but the rules are the same nation wide even if the definition of ‘emergency vehicle’ does vary state to state.

The Road Rules 2014 provide that the driver of an emergency vehicle is exempt from the other road rules provided that

  1. The driver is taking reasonable care;
  2. It is reasonable that the rule should not apply; and
  3. The ‘vehicle is displaying a blue or red flashing light or sounding an alarm’ (emphasis added).

Other drivers have to give way if the vehicle is displaying its red/blue lights or sounding the siren (rules 78 and 79).

So the answer is that, on the face of it, emergency service vehicles can respond with only the red/blue lights on and not the siren. But that begs the question of ‘are they are exercising reasonable care?’

The purpose of the red/blue lights and sirens is to warn other drivers of the presence of the emergency vehicle and to warn them that the driver would like right of way to proceed to the emergency. It is for the benefit of other road users and the safety of the emergency service crew.    Not having the siren on is removing one more warning device, but it may be reasonable in some circumstances. Some I can think of are:

  1. Police who don’t want to alert offenders that they are on their way (but do note that police have their own rule, rule 305 which provides that police may be exempt from the road rules even if they don’t have any warning devices – lights or sirens – activated or even fitted to the car they are using provided that ‘in the circumstances, it is reasonable’.  Of course if they have no warning devices fitted or operating other drivers won’t know what’s going on and aren’t required to give way or make way for them. The driver would need to consider the risk they expose others to if they drive like they would if they had lights and sirens operating.):
  2. Paramedics who are treating a patient in the ambulance and who will be distressed by the sound of the siren, and that may mean, in the circumstances that the ambulance is also travelling relatively slowly and the use of the siren may confuse other road users;
  3. Travelling in heavy traffic where drivers have limited opportunity to get out of the way so the siren may actually cause distress and increase the risk to others;
  4. And in comments on an earlier post (see ‘Red/blue lights in ACT and NSW’ (October 10, 2013) there was a discussion on whether it is reasonable to use a siren late at night with little traffic but at the risk of disturbing non-road users.

So the possible legal ramifications are:

  1. The legislation doesn’t require both siren and lights – one is sufficient;
  2. A driver should consider what are the risks and why do they want one warning device but not both.
  3. If it is not ‘reasonable’ to have just the lights and sirens then the exemption may be lost on the basis that the driver was not taking ‘reasonable care’;
  4. In terms of civil liability, if there was an accident and another person was injured or their vehicle damaged and they tried to recover from the Ambulance service (not the driver) the issue would depend on whether or not the use of the siren would have made any difference, and that would depend on what actually happened. The mere fact that the siren was not on would not determine the issue of liability, it would just be one factor to be considered.