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driving concerns

Whenever I’m on the road and I hear sirens from an ambulance, police car or fire truck and see flashing lights behind me, I slow down and pull over to the right. But other drivers seem like they don’t know what to do. I’ve seen some just slam on the brakes and stop where they are. What exactly are the rules? What am I supposed to do when there’s a lot of slow or stopped traffic, like at rush hour, and there’s no room to pull over because cars are bumper-to-bumper? I’ve driven in Germany and was astounded to see drivers automatically pull over to the left and right in highway traffic jams to make a centre lane for emergency vehicles. I can’t imagine that ever happening here. – Graham, Calgary

When you hear sirens coming your way, signal, calmly pull over to the right and stop – even if there’s gridlock, experts say.

“When an emergency vehicle approaches from behind it’s best to immediately and safely pull over to the curb,” Dennis Porter, senior instructor for novice drivers at the Alberta Motor Association (AMA), said in an e-mail. “Stop and wait until the emergency vehicle has passed.”

According to Section 65 of Alberta’s Use of Highway and Rules of the Road Regulation, an emergency vehicle with its siren on has the right of way over all other vehicles.

An Alberta government website that sums up the rules says that when you hear an emergency vehicle’s sirens, “immediately pull over as close to the curb as possible, remaining parallel to the road. Typically, you should pull over to the right. Make sure you are not in the middle of an intersection and use your turn signal.”

If you’re on a road with three or more lanes in one direction and you’re closer to the left lane, signal left and safely pull over to the left, Porter said.

If you’re in the middle of an intersection when you hear the siren, don’t stop in the intersection, Porter said. Instead, if it’s safe, proceed through the intersection and then pull over safely to the nearest curb, Porter said.

When the ambulance, fire truck or police car has passed, let the cars in front of you pull back into the lane, Porter said, before rejoining traffic.

If you’re the first car behind the emergency vehicle, leave some distance. It’s illegal in Alberta to be closer than 150 metres behind an emergency vehicle with its sirens or flashing lights on.

Rules apply in traffic jams

If you’re stuck in gridlock, you should still try to get as close to the nearest curb as you can, Porter said.

“You should be as courteous as possible to allow vehicles to get out of the way,” he said.

But what if cars are so close together that nobody can move? Ideally, you should be leaving plenty of distance from the car in front of you, Porter said.

“By following at a proper following and stopping distance, you should have created a safe place for yourself and others to move over as close to the curb as possible to allow safe travel of the emergency vehicle,” he said.

In Canada, no provinces have a law like Germany’s, which requires cars in the left lane to pull over to the left and those in other lanes to pull to the right in traffic jams in order to make a centre lane for emergency vehicles. Although the rules on what to do when you hear sirens vary by province, most are similar to Alberta’s.

For instance, in Ontario, Section 159 of the Highway Traffic Act states that if you’re being approached by an ambulance, fire truck, police car or public utility vehicle with red or blue lights flashing, immediately come to a stop “as near as is practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway and parallel therewith and clear of any intersection.”

If there are more than two lanes in the same direction, it says to pull over “as near as is practicable to the nearest curb.”

On an undivided road, you should be pulling over even if the emergency vehicle is heading in the opposite direction in the opposite lane, Dineen Robinson, spokeswoman for Toronto Paramedic Services, said in an e-mail.

If there’s a shoulder, leave it clear in case emergency vehicles need to use it, she said. “Drivers on a highway should pull to the right side, but avoid pulling directly onto the shoulder.”

When you hear sirens behind you, don’t panic – people driving emergency vehicles know what to do, even when other drivers aren’t certain of the rules, Robinson said.

Have a driving question? Send it to 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.

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