Question: When there is an emergency vehicle with its lights and siren on traveling in the opposite direction, do you have to pull over to the shoulder and stop?
Answer: I’m inclined to err on a cautious reading of the law with this question, recognizing that there might be room for other interpretations. Here is what the law says, as found in RCW 46.61.210: “Upon the immediate approach of an authorized vehicle making use of audible and visual signals ... the driver of every other vehicle shall yield the right-of-way and shall immediately drive to a position parallel to, and as close as possible to, the right-hand edge or curb of the roadway ... and shall stop.”
The law doesn’t have any details about a lane count threshold where drivers no longer have to move over. However, I think there are some situations where it doesn’t apply. I would propose that the application of the law depends on the term “immediate approach.” A law-enforcement officer would feel confident writing a ticket to cars in either direction on an undivided two-lane road. But beyond that, what does the law require?
Let’s start with the most obvious situations where the law wouldn’t apply and then work backwards.
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If you’re traveling southbound on Interstate 5 and you see an aid car with lights and siren headed northbound, you don’t need to pull over. I think we’re all good with that. On a multi-lane roadway that has a concrete curb, a row of trees or some other design that physically separates opposing directions of traffic, you don’t have to move over if a police car is responding in the opposite direction.
What about undivided multi-lane roads or roads with center turn lanes? We find the answer by considering the purpose of the law: to give emergency vehicles that are traveling faster than traffic room to respond quickly to emergencies. We pull over to the right to let them get past us.
So you’re not just relying on me, I asked a traffic officer his thoughts. He said that if pulling over creates more space for an emergency vehicle, you’re required to pull over. If pulling over will not create more room for the emergency vehicle, you’ll be fine staying in your lane.
We’re moving toward an answer to the original question, which deserves a probably-yes-but-maybe-no response. If you’re driving in traffic on a two-lane road with a center turn lane, pulling over probably will create more room for an emergency vehicle, no matter which direction you’re going.
If an emergency vehicle is approaching from the opposite direction and there is no other oncoming traffic, that emergency vehicle doesn’t need that extra lane and maybe you would be OK to stay in your lane.
I can’t speak on behalf of an officer entrusted with enforcing the law, but as I said, I generally would err on the side of caution and pull over.
There is one more thing to consider: It’s possible that you may be driving down a multi-lane divided road, see a fire truck coming with lights and siren from the other direction, and be surrounded by other drivers who decide to pull over. The law doesn’t require them to pull over, but if they all do, and you don’t, you might find yourself becoming a traffic problem. Once the fire truck passes and drivers start moving back into traffic, they may assume that everyone else stopped and be surprised by your rapid approach on their left. That surprise may be coupled with a bumper in your door panel.
Assumptions generally are dangerous, but here is one that will improve your driver survival rate: Always assume that every driver on the road has the potential to make a lane change or other maneuver without looking for other cars.
When it comes to moving to the right for emergency vehicles, don’t let the requirements of the law be your only guiding factor. Keep alert for drivers who pull over when they don’t need to, don’t pull over when they should, or are oblivious of any emergency vehicle until the last second and then make a panic-turn without looking for other cars.
The goal is to make sure we don’t create another situation that requires an emergency response.
Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.