What to do when flashing lights appear in your rear-view mirror

Posted on: October 25, 2016

By Chris Must

There’s nothing like a set of flashing blue and red lights suddenly appearing in the rear-view mirror to get a motorist’s attention. Every driver knows to pull over and come to a stop, and it’s always a relief when the speeding police car continues on its way: it wasn’t you this time.

In Ontario police vehicles responding to an emergency will display red and blue flashing lights. An ambulance is equipped with red lights. But blue and red are not the only colours used by emergency vehicles. The Highway Traffic Act of 1990 authorizes firefighters to display a flashing green light when responding to emergencies. The act restricts the use of flashing green lights in Ontario to firefighters only. Tow trucks are equipped with amber lights.

But regardless of the type of emergency vehicle, a driver encounters on the road – police, fire or ambulance – the requirement, as explained in the Ontario Ministry of Transportation Drivers’ Handbook, is the same. “When an emergency vehicle is approaching your vehicle from any direction with its flashing red or red and blue lights, or siren or bell sounding, you are required to bring your vehicle to an immediate stop.”

The handbook goes on to explain that when bringing your vehicle to a stop you are required to bring it as close as practical to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway, not onto the shoulder of the roadway. This is because emergency vehicles may be using the shoulder of the road to make their way around traffic.

If you are in an intersection and preparing to make a turn when an emergency vehicle is approaching, you should abandon the turn and clear the intersection by proceeding straight when safe to do so, then pull to the right and stop. This will clear the intersection and minimize the possibility of a collision with the emergency vehicle should it be passing you on the side you intended to turn towards.

The handbook also notes that it is illegal in Ontario to follow within 150 meters of a fire vehicle responding to an alarm.

Safety tips
1. React quickly but calmly.

  1. Don’t slam on the brakes or pull over without signaling.
  2. Check your rearview mirrors to make sure it’s safe to stop. Also make sure the way is clear, and signal, before merging back into traffic.

The penalty for failure to slow down or move over when safe to do so near emergency vehicles or tow trucks that are stopped with sirens or lights flashing is a fine of $400 to $2,000 for a first conviction, and three demerit points upon conviction, according to the Ministry of Transportation. Fines increase for subsequent offenses.