New ‘slow down’ rule near emergency vehicles now in force but lobby groups say it could prove deadly

NSW motorists now have to slow to 40km/h when passing emergency vehicles flashing their blue and red lights.
NSW motorists now have to slow to 40km/h when passing emergency vehicles flashing their blue and red lights.

As of Saturday, St George and Sutherland Shire motorists have to slow down when passing emergency service vehicles with flashing blue and red lights – or cop a hefty fine and the loss of three demerit points.

The new road rule, designed to improve safety for emergency personnel, means motorists must slow down to 40km/h when passing stationary emergency vehicles displaying red or blue flashing lights.

The rule applies to vehicles travelling in both directions, unless the road is divided by a median strip.

It began on September 1 and will be trialed for the next 12 months. 

Motorists who ignore the new speed limit will face stiff penalties, including a $448 fine and the loss of three demerit points.

Executive Director of the NSW Centre for Road Safety Bernard Carlon said drivers have to maintain a speed of 40km/h “until you’ve safely passed all people and emergency vehicles” and also give way to any pedestrians.

“We want to make sure the people protecting us on our road network don’t become casualties while doing their jobs,” Mr Carlon said.

Concerns have been raised by some motorists about the need to slow down to 40km/h on a motorway with a signposted speed limit of 100km/h or 110km/h.

In response to a question on its website about how to slow down safely on a high-speed road, the Centre for Road Safety said: “Motorists should always start slowing down in a controlled manner as soon as they first see blue or red flashing lights, taking into account the current road conditions including surrounding vehicles”.

“If an emergency vehicle is attending an incident in an area of low visibility, due to the location or weather conditions, it will be because there are no other options to move to a safer location. Further care should be taken in these circumstance,” it said. 

Transport for NSW will monitor the safety and traffic impacts of the rule over the year-long trial in consultation with NSW Police, emergency service organisations and other stakeholders.

The rule does not apply to first responders such as NRMA roadside assistance drivers or tow truck operators.

The NSW Rural Fire Service Association (RFSA) campaigned for the introduction of the new road safety rule as a measure to further protect responding emergency workers and volunteers, with the backing of police, paramedics’, and firefighting bodies right across the state.

Ken Middleton, RFSA President, said the 12-month trial is a vital measure to help make the state’s roads safer.

“It’s absolutely imperative that our emergency workers and volunteers are protected while at work and responding to emergency incidents across the state,” said Mr Middleton.

“We want to ensure that emergency workers going about their work protecting the people of NSW don’t become casualties themselves while doing their jobs.

“NSW already employs the use of reduced speed rules around school zones.

“We look forward to our valued emergency workers and volunteers having the same level of protection applied to them as well.”

But some NSW lobby groups are calling for a new road rule to be overhauled over fears that it puts motorists' lives at risk.

Steve Pearce, Chairman of the Motorcycle Council of NSW, says the rule could prove deadly on motorways and freeways, where motorists are generally doing 110km/h and might have to slam on the brakes to be compliant.

"By suddenly reducing the speed limit on a major carriageway to 40km/h we are effectively swapping the safety of emergency workers for the safety of ordinary motorists," said Mr Pearce.

"Anyone who has driven on a high speed road knows the effect of braking suddenly from 110km/h to 40km/h.

"The resulting snaking of traffic can produce a trail of rear end collisions, and more often than not this is what happens."

Mr Pearce said that Motorcycle Council members have voiced their concern for the new rule "almost unanimously", as they consider motorcyclists to be "the most vulnerable of road users".

"The effect of a rear end collision on a motorcyclist will most likely be a serious injury or fatality. So we are very concerned about this," he said.

Richard Calver, Adviser on Compliance for the National Road Transport Association, says the organisation fears mostly for truck drivers, who have a harder time slowing down than light vehicles.

He says that if truck drivers slow down to the extent of their "practicability" but don't match the 40km/h mark, it's unfair for police to slap them with a penalty.

"We're saying if you're coming around a corner and you only see the emergency vehicle at that point in time, then it might not be practicable for a heavy vehicle to decelerate to 40km/h as it passes," said Mr Calver.

"But as long as they're decelerating, then they've done the right thing."