We’ll be driving from British Columbia to Nova Scotia this summer and I’m wondering what the rules are for passing stopped tow trucks and emergency vehicles with flashing lights along our route. Do we have to slow down and move over in every province? – Jiang, Burnaby, B.C.
If you’re driving across Canada, slow down and move over any time you see a stopped emergency vehicle, including a tow truck, with flashing lights.
“Except for the territories, all provinces have a slow down, move over law in Canada … [and] all laws include tow trucks,” Kristine D’Arbelles, spokeswoman for the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) said in an e-mail. “The law is similar in almost all provinces and simple: Slow down and move over where it is safe. If there are multiple lanes, move over a lane.”
In most provinces, including British Columbia and Ontario, the law applies to all lanes in both directions on undivided roads and all lanes in the same direction on a divided road.
Alberta is an exception. The law says only the lane next to the stopped vehicle needs to stop, but that’s changing to include all lanes on Sept. 1, the Alberta Motor Association said in an e-mail.
So what speed should you slow to? Depending on the province, it can get complicated. In B.C., for instance, you must slow to 70 kilometres an hour if the posted speed limit is 80 or over – and slow to 40 if the speed limit is below 80.
Manitoba has a similar rule: Slow to 60 kilometres an hour if the speed limit is over 80 – and to 40 if the speed limit is under 80.
In Newfoundland, you have to reduce your speed to at least 30 kilometres an hour less than the speed limit. In New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, you’re looking at half the speed limit.
That’s the same in Northwest Territories, but it only applies to emergency vehicles and not to tow trucks there.
Ontario and Quebec’s approach – which lets a police officer decide whether you’re going a reasonable speed for the situation – allows “for more discretion on the driver’s behalf,” said Lewis Smith, manager of national projects with the Canada Safety Council.
“[That] can be more useful than a specific number in certain situations,” Smith said.
Yukon and Nunavut don’t have a specific rule for stopped emergency vehicles.
And move over?
In most provinces, if you’re in the lane next to the stopped vehicle on a multi-lane highway, you have to move over to the next lane if you can make the move safely.
“[In Ontario], slowing down is mandatory, moving over is secondary, if possible,” OPP Sergeant Kerry Schmidt, said in an e-mail.
But there are exceptions. For instance, Saskatchewan’s law doesn’t say to move over. Alberta’s doesn’t, either, but that’s changing on Sept 1.
Alberta’s law is also changing to include snowplows and road maintenance vehicles. All lanes of travel in the same direction and all vehicles in both directions on a single-lane undivided highway must slow to 60 kilometres an hour, the Alberta Motor Association said in an e-mail.
The point of the laws is to prevent cars from hitting emergency vehicles and emergency workers.
“The biggest challenge we have is awareness of the law,” D’Arbelles said.
In a 2022 CAA South Central Ontario survey of Ontario drivers, more than half of the respondents knew and could explain the law, D’Arbelles said. “But that is still only half.”
So, are the laws working? CAA did not have national statistics available on the number of emergency workers hit.
“Having been a front-line police officer for 16 years, I can personally say that I have had a lot of near misses from motorists not following this important law,” said RCMP Corporal Mike Moore, spokesman for BC Highway Patrol, in an e-mail.
Since 1989 in Ontario, five OPP officers have been killed while on duty on the side of the road after their vehicles were struck by approaching vehicles, OPP’s Schmidt said.
In 2022 in Ontario, OPP laid 846 charges against drivers for failing to slow down and move over for stopped emergency vehicles, he added.
There have been public education campaigns and road signs in most provinces to remind drivers of these laws, CSC’s Smith said.
“It’s difficult to prove the impact of laws like these, given the impossibility of proving how many collisions have not occurred,” Smith said. “But it’s reasonable to suggest that while these laws have likely resulted in more mindfulness, more awareness and mindfulness are [still] needed to reduce fatality and injury numbers further.”
So, even if you don’t know the exact speed you should slow to when driving in another province, we should all know by now that we need to slow down and move over when passing stopped emergency vehicles, Smith said. Further, while the laws apply to stopped vehicles with flashing lights, it’s a good idea to slow down and move over when any vehicle is stopped on the side of the road, Smith said.
Have a driving question? Send it to email@example.com and put ‘Driving Concerns’ in your subject line. Emails without the correct subject line may not be answered. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.