Blue or orange flashing lights, sirens, bells, the very thought conjures up the image of an emergency vehicle, attending or dealing with a life threatening or emergency situation, but what about a car intermittently sounding its horn and waving a handkerchief? That too is a priority vehicle in certain circumstances, and other vehicles must move out of the way, if it´s safe to do so. Let us explain.
The rules relating to emergency vehicles are detailed in the text “Reglamento general de circulación sobre vehículos prioritarios”, or the general traffic regulations on priority vehicles.
Article 67 states that vehicles, either private or public, responding to an emergency situation have priority over all other road users. Under certain conditions, they are exempt from certain other rules and regulations whilst responding to emergencies, such as speed limits. They also have priority through junctions, intersections and traffic lights, so long as they take appropriate precautions to avoid collisions with other road users, such as ensuring other vehicles are topped or safe and that there are no pedestrians in their path, for example. These exemptions only apply when responding to an emergency situation.
Article 67 also states that the installation of light and sound emitting devices can only be done with specific authority from the Provincial Traffic Department, in accordance to rules governing this type of vehicle.
In Article 68, the correct procedures for drivers of emergency vehicles is detailed, including the provisions for not endangering other road users, and where vehicles responding to emergencies can, under certain circumstances, also have exemptions to other rules and regulations, including turning around on motorways and driving in the opposite direction to that permitted, and use their vehicles to block the road to assist others in dealing with emergencies.
Article 68 also explains how vehicles of law enforcement authorities such as the police and Guardia Civil, fire service, Protección Civil, rescue services and health, public or private, are all considered priority vehicles when dealing with emergencies and will warn of their presence by means of lights (as detailed in Article 173), and special acoustic signals (sirens or bells). The drivers of these vehicles also have to be considerate as to when they use their signal equipment so as not to present a hazard to other road users.
Tow trucks (gruas) attending emergencies are also considered priority vehicles when their orange lights are flashing. This is to ensure the fastest response time to clear up the debris and vehicles following road incidents and collisions, so those vehicles too are allowed to proceed in the same way as the ones already detailed.
So far, we have looked at the requirements of those operating the emergency vehicles, now we will look at the obligation of other road users regarding priority vehicles.
Article 69 explains the expected behaviour of other road users, which states that as soon as a driver notices the presence of a priority vehicle, by hearing the siren or seeing the lights for example, drivers must take appropriate measures, according to the circumstances of the time and place, to facilitate the passage of the priority vehicle, usually by moving to the right hand side, or stopping if necessary.
When a police or law enforcement vehicle positions itself behind any vehicle and also activated a red or yellow flashing, intermittent light, the driver of the vehicle must take appropriate precautions to stop their vehicle on the right-hand side of the road as soon as it is safe and practical. A police or law enforcement vehicle behind you with a flashing red or yellow light is telling you to stop.
Once stopped, you must remain in the vehicle and await instructions from the officers involved, either by means of a loud speaker, or directly.
The police and law enforcement officers also use other methods for instructing vehicles to stop, which are detailed in the article “Sings and Signals from Police Officers Controlling Traffic”.
The final section of this article deals with a seemingly very unusual situation, but one which could save a person´s life, which is why it is included in the legislation.
Article 70 explains how other vehicles can become priority vehicles dealing with an emergency, and are afforded similar rights to those official vehicles detailed already.
In certain circumstances, and only when there is a risk to life, any other vehicle can assume the role of a priority vehicle by intermittently sounding the horn, connecting an emergency light (if available) and using hazard lights, or waving a cloth, flag or even a handkerchief to raise the awareness of their presence to other road users.
Extreme caution must be exercised when driving under these circumstances, remember that the drivers of emergency vehicles are highly trained in the procedures and processes for moving through traffic and junctions at high speed, and even with their lights and sirens, there are numerous incidents recorded where drivers still fail to move over, and also numerous incidents of collisions. A normal vehicle without a livery, siren and lights may well confuse other road users, despite the use of the horn and waving a sheet.
In these situations, you must still respect the laws relating to the movement of vehicles, such as speed limits and giving way at junctions, this is not an excuse for any driver to break the law. You should also be aware that if you do take on the role of saviour with your vehicle, you are highly likely to have to explain the circumstances which prompted you drive in this manner to law enforcement officers, as the process is reserved for life-threatening situations, but one that may well mean the difference between life and death for a victim, and so is a valuable piece of information worth knowing.
Finally, remember, that if you see any vehicle displaying these characteristics, the situation they are responding to is likely to be one where a life or lives are in danger, so please respect their signals and move over to allow these priority vehicles to pass.