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driving concerns

If I'm travelling in an HOV (carpool) lane and an emergency vehicle is behind me, do I pullover to the right and cross the double lines or to the left onto the shoulder?

Those double lines in an HOV lane are supposed to be treated like a physical barrier, but you're allowed to cross those lines if there's an emergency vehicle behind you, says Ontario's Ministry of Transportation.

"If an emergency vehicle is approaching and the motorist is in an HOV lane, they must safely pull over to the right," says MTO spokesman Bob Nichols in an email. "Motorists must not pull over on the shoulder, which in the case if an HOV lane is on the left-hand side of the roadway, as emergency vehicles may need to use it."

A quick look at the law: If you hear approaching sirens or see flashing lights of police cars, ambulances or fire trucks, section 159 of the Highway Traffic Act (HTA) says you're supposed to come safely to a stop "as near as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway."

In other words, pull over to the right as far as you can and stop.

But if you're on a divided highway or one-way road with more than two lanes, the law says you're supposed to come safely to a stop "as near as practicable to the closest curb or edge of the roadway."

So, if you're closer to the left on a multilane highway, you should be pulling over to the left.

Whether it's left or right, stay off the shoulder, Nichols says.

If you break the law, it's three demerit points and a fine between $400 and $2,000 for the first offence. Break it again and you could get a fine between $1,000 and $4,000, up to 6 months in jail, or both. In 2013, there were 456 convictions.

As for crossing the double lines, the exception is listed in section 3 of regulation 620/05, Ontario's rules for high occupancy vehicle lanes. If there's not an emergency vehicle behind you, there are only a few other situations where you're allowed to cross the double-lined "buffer zone." Most of those don't apply to most of us. For example, you can legally cross if you're a police officer on duty, or if you're doing road construction work in or near the HOV lane.

In reality, it's not always possible to move over to the closest side of the road on a multilane highway, says Toronto Emergency Medical Services. Depending on the situation, you may have to just slow down in the lane you're in — or get over as far as you can, even if it's just into the next lane.

"On (Ontario's) 400 series highways, you have to do what's safe," says Toronto EMS spokesperson Kim McKinnon. "We want people to pull over to the right safely and stop if you can, but we understand that on the highway that's not alway a reasonable thing to do."

If you slam on your brakes or veer to either side without checking to see whether it's safe, you could get into an accident — and that defeats the whole purpose of clearing the way.

"People panic when they hear lights and sirens and they forget what to do," McKinnon says. "Paramedics are trained to get as quickly and safely to the hospital as they can and they're used to drivers who don't know what to do in these situations."

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