Red lights and sirens: 5 California emergency vehicle road laws you may not know

Emergencies happen every day, and when they do, everyone on the road has an obligation to help crews get to the scene of an incident as swiftly as possible.

A reader reached out to The Sacramento Bee’s service team, curious if fire trucks are allowed to use their lights and sirens when returning from an emergency.

The question inspired us to look at state laws governing emergency vehicles in California and the responsibility of everyday drivers on the road. Fire trucks, ambulances and law enforcement cars are all considered emergency vehicles, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Here’s what we found.

Red lights and sirens

According to California Code 21055, most emergency vehicles cannot sound their sirens unless responding to an incident.

Fire trucks have more leeway than others under California Vehicle Code 21055.

The red engines can bypass traffic rules and use their sirens and red lights even if they’re returning from an incident, so long as they are on their way to another. This could be from one fire station to another or to another scene of an emergency.

If there’s no incident, emergency vehicles are subject to the same traffic rules as everyone else on the road.

You can’t break the rules too

That same state law — California Vehicle Code 21055 — gives emergency vehicles such as police cars and ambulances the authority to bypass traffic laws when responding to an incident.

Yet just because emergency personnel might break the rules of the road, that doesn’t mean you can too. Non-emergency vehicles are still subject to the same (or more restrictive) traffic laws as usual, even if a police car is speeding down the shoulder of a freeway.

Move over and slow down

According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, emergency vehicles have the right of way when their sirens and red lights are on.

You’re expected to pull over and stop until an emergency vehicle has passed, according to California Vehicle Code 21806.

If you see a stopped emergency vehicle with flashing hazard lights, switch lanes and reduce your speed. If you’re caught in an intersection, drive through it and get to the right side of the road as quickly and as safely as possible.

Don’t get too close

Keep your distance from emergency vehicles when they’re responding to a call. Drivers cannot be within 300 feet of an emergency vehicle when a siren or flashing lights are activated, according to the California DMV.

Police escorts are exempt from this rule, according to California Civil Code 21706.

Illegal to drive to an emergency

According to the California DMV , you can be arrested for driving to the scene of a blaze, crash or another disaster if obstructing emergency crews’ path.

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