Priority for Emergency Vehicles at Traffic Lights

Traffic & Emergency SignalsWhen you need the services of firefighters or paramedics seconds can seem like hours. Sooner is always better in situations like this so some traffic lights are equipped with sensors that listen for sirens and change the signals to make way for emergency vehicles. Not knowing what the priority signal lights meant led one driver to make a choice that could have resulted in a collision in a Ladysmith intersection.

As this lady approached a red traffic light she could see a small flashing white light beside it on the mast. After she stopped, the green advanced left turn signal appeared. Not being able to see or hear any emergency vehicles around her, she moved into the intersection to turn left. The sudden appearance of an unmarked police vehicle that was lit and screaming surprised her and caused her to slam on the brakes and stop in the middle of the intersection.

Aren't the traffic lights supposed to turn red for all directions in a case like this? After suffering a bit of a scare, this lady began to consider that because she had proceeded, she could have collided with the police vehicle and because she had stopped suddenly she could have been rear ended as well. Fortunately, the police car made it though the intersection and there was no crash.

It makes sense that emergency vehicles approach a green light so that traffic in front of them is not stopped blocking the intersection. The other directions face a red signal so that all other traffic stops to grant priority. This is what the white and blue lights tell drivers. If you face a white light, the emergency vehicles are approaching from behind you. If you see a blue light, they are either coming toward you or approaching from your left or right.

The blue and white lights flash while the traffic lights are being set to accomodate the path of the emergency traffic. When these lights are on steadily the signals have been set and will remain set until the emergency vehicle passes. After this has happened, they will turn off and the traffic lights will resume normal operation.

So what happens when you see these priority lights in operation but cannot see or hear an emergency vehicle? Is the emergency vehicle not yet visible as in this case or are they just malfunctioning?

While sirens seem loud, they can be difficult to hear when you have your windows up and your vehicle's sound system in operation. Before proceeding on the left turn signal, this driver could have opened her side window and listened carefully.

Emergency vehicles of any size can be difficult to see through surrounding traffic and unmarked police vehicles are at a particular disadvantage. Again, before proceeding, scan the intersection and it's approaches very carefully. Just because your light is green does not mean that you may safely proceed. Remember that there may be more than one emergency vehicle approaching the intersection, possibly from multiple directions and the white light is showing for the loudest one.

Since a cyclist has the same duties as the driver of a car, they must yield to emergency vehicles too.

Pedestrians are not included in the yielding to emergency vehicles legislation, but they must obey the signals at the intersection. Being perhaps the most vulnerable road user, it would be sensible to make way.

I thought I kept myself current of what has changed over the years but have to admit that I have never seen anything mentioned about a "Blue" light. When did this change?

Now a question regarding blue lights on emergency vehicles. Is flashing red and blue only police cars or can all emergency vehicles use them?

In reply to by James_O

In BC, I've only ever seen flashing blue lights used on Police vehicles (with flashing red lights also).

Ambulances and Fire Trucks will only have flashing red lights, to the best of my knowledge.

The reason I think their may be jurisdictional differences is because I've seen flashing blue lights used on Snowploughs in Ontario.

Another timely and interesting article.

I am not sure when these blue / white lights first appeared, and it was my wife who mentioned their significance to me many years ago.

Actually, I thought there was just one color, as viewed though the top 4  inches of tinted windshield glass. She thought one color was for Fire the other for Police.

I wonder f it would be practical to have a hand out sheet to give people when they renew their plates, giving a heads up on new regs, (or ones that the public seems confused about : like "snow" tires).

There are some very strange Bike lane configurations, traffic circle  protocols ( Dawson Creek and Clearwater are especially interesting in the snow), that could be clarified at that time.

Just a thought.