We’ve all been startled by an ambulance or police car appearing, flashing its lights and blasting a siren. Nobody wants to hold up an emergency service vehicle, but what are the rules for letting them pass safely, and how should drivers react?

Being a new driver comes with many challenges, and for those that aren’t that familiar with the roads yet, knowing what to do when you encounter an emergency vehicle can be tricky to contend with when you’re on the spot.

Read below for our guide to the correct reactions in various scenarios involving emergency service vehicles.

Rules for Pulling Over for Emergency Vehicles

For new and old drivers alike, the rules on how and when to pull over for emergency vehicles might not be fresh in your mind.

Whether you’ve just passed your test or are looking to brush up on your knowledge, having the most up-to-date information is essential. Check out our collection of resources for learner drivers if this is what you’re after.

So, what should you do if a police car, fire engine or ambulance is behind you?

You don’t need to move for them if they don’t have flashing lights or a siren activated. They're not likely to be responding to an emergency if this is the case, which means they aren't in a rush.

If you see blue lights or hear a siren, though, it’s time to take safe and decisive action to get out of their path. We’ll walk you through how to do just that below.

police car responding to an emergency

Pulling over in different situations

Drivers that find themselves in the path of an emergency vehicle should either pull over or slow down to let them pass. Whether you were on the school run or in the middle of your morning commute, you probably weren't expecting to run into chaos like this on the road. 

However, it will be a situation drivers will find themselves in at least once (and probably hundreds of times). So knowing how to deal with it, regardless of where you are and what type of road you're on, is essential.

Some roads will allow them to pass you easily, while it might be trickier on others.

For example, a relatively quiet three-lane motorway should be an easy place for them to pass since they can use the second or third lane to overtake. Change lanes safely if an emergency vehicle appears behind you while driving in an overtaking lane. 

A wide road should also be an easy place for them to safely pass – although you might still need to slow down and move over slightly.

Where things get tricky is when you’re in heavy traffic or at a standstill. With limited space to manoeuvre, moving out of the path of an oncoming police car, fire engine or ambulance can seem impossible.

In this situation, it’s important to stay calm and remember the rules of the road. Don’t panic; try to move if possible, but if you could be breaking the law by doing so, stay where you are and don’t make any rash decisions.

What else should I consider when pulling over?

Another thing you need to consider are other drivers. They might not have noticed the vehicle or know how to react, so consider what they might do following any action you take.

Avoid slamming on the brakes or swerving into another lane without carrying out the necessary safety checks, such as looking in mirrors and checking blind spots. The last thing anyone wants is to cause another accident while the emergency services might already be responding to one.

You also can’t break any rules of the road, such as jumping a red light, speeding or incorrectly using the hard shoulder. Avoid crossing the white line at a set of traffic lights, too, as this is an offence that could land you with a fine and penalty points if there’s a red light camera in operation.

If you’re still in doubt about what to do, the best reaction is just to slow down and allow them to do their job. Remember – the person behind the wheel of the emergency vehicle has trained for high-intensity driving. You most likely haven't.​

fire engine responding to an emergency

What does the Highway Code say about emergency vehicles?

Section Five of the Highway Code says you need to look and listen for ambulances, fire engines, police, doctors, or other emergency vehicles using flashing blue, red or green lights and sirens or flashing headlights. You should also be aware of Highways Agency Traffic Officer and Incident Support vehicles using flashing amber lights, particularly on the motorway.

According to the Highway Code, we should do the following when approached by an emergency vehicle:

  • Try not to panic
  • Consider the potential route and allow the vehicle to pass safely
  • Comply with all traffic signs
  • Pull to the side of the road and come to a stop if necessary to allow them to get through
  • Try to avoid stopping before the brow of a hill, a bend, or a narrow section of road
  • Don’t mount the kerb as you could endanger pedestrians
  • Avoid harsh braking on the approach to hazards, such as junctions or roundabouts

What colour lights do emergency vehicles use?

As a rule, you should act accordingly regardless of the colour of the lights.

However, it can be confusing when different emergency vehicles are flashing with various coloured lights that you don’t understand.

Emergency vehicles will either use blue, green, amber or red. Other colours, such as white, might be used along with another colour to brighten the lights and make them more visible.

All these colours can indicate that an emergency vehicle is on the road, but if you're unsure, you can look for the markings to find out which vehicle it is.

For more motoring tips and advice, head to the Brindley blog.

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