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What should I do when I hear a siren while driving?

Don't be the person who panics at the sounds... of sirens. (Image credit: Scott Richardson)

There are some things that are so painfully obvious it's hard to believe we need to explain them to people.

Given we've been riding on trains since before Ned Kelly was trying to derail them (1855, to be exact), we probably could have lost those "mind the gap" signs at stations by now.

The same goes for those "no naked flame" warnings on the pumps at petrol stations, and the "don't open while in flight" signs on aeroplane doors. If those lessons haven't sunk in by now, we're surely not risking our best and brightest. No one has to tell you that skiing naked is a bad idea.

Which is why it's slightly surprising, yet undeniable, that many motorists don't know how to behave when they hear an emergency siren while driving (here's a clue, wide-eyed panic and brake-stomping are not the correct response).

So, exactly how should you behave when you hear an emergency siren while driving? Clearly the message needs a little longer to sink in with some of our fellow motorists.

NSW authorities word it pretty clearly: 'Get out of the way, so the emergency vehicle has a clear passage through traffic.'

How else could you explain that fact that, seemingly every time a siren cranks up on an Australian road, there's at least one driver who bumbles along in front of them, seemingly oblivious to the chaos unfolding as they dawdle along at 10km/h under the speed limit while the emergency vehicle swerves and sways in an infuriated effort to get around them?

Or worse, a driver panics, diving between lanes like a blinkered (and heavily drunk) horse, commendably trying to get out of the way, but causing an even bigger emergency in the process.

These people risk more than just their health and the wrath of the motorists around them, with heavy fines and demerit-point penalties on offer across the country.

And so, in the interests of your wallet and the safety of the broader public (and because one of those sirens might be making its way to save us one day) we present this thorough, step-by-step guide to dealing with emergency vehicles on the road.

1. Don't panic

Not just the sage-like advice of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but genuinely useful in this situation. While it's genuinely hard-wired into our brains when we are young and being pulled over for something, it's important not to completely lose your mind, or control of your bladder, the moment the piercing howl of a siren enters your cabin.

In fact, take a second or two to work out your best and safest option before you do anything at all. That way, you're unlikely to cause another emergency while trying to get out of the way.

2. Check your mirrors

Like most good people, your immediate reaction will be to get out of the way as quickly as possible, but if you live within 500km of anything even resembling a CBD, it's unlikely you're going to have the road to yourself.

Make sure you check your mirrors and blindspots before you make your move - especially considering everyone around you will be trying to get out of the way as well, and so won't be where you expect them to be. Yes, it's important to hurry, but not to the detriment of everyone else. 

3. Move to the left (mostly)

Yep, most of the time you'll be pulling to the left - either into the slow lane or as far off the road as you can safely get -  to let an ambulance or fire crew get by, but it's not a hard-and-fast rule.

If, for example, the left lane is clear while the right lane is clogged, you'll be better off staying where you are. Or if you're at a traffic light - yes, even a green one - you might be safer to stay still and let the emergency vehicle navigate around you.

In short, be alert, keep an eye on the emergency vehicle in question and try to give them the clearest path possible. In fact, some states even describe what you should do with a simple "get out of the way".

This is a good time to exercise that skill that seems to have withered away to almost nothing in modern human beings; common sense.

4. Don't use an emergency vehicle as a shortcut tool

Don't be that person. You know, the one who moves over to let an emergency vehicle through, and then immediately slots in behind it, smugly grinning as they sit 3cm from the bumper in front of them. That's not how functioning societies work. And if a police officer sees you trying it, they will quite rightly throw the book at you.

Instead, be patient. Let the emergency vehicle clear your immediate vicinity before merging safely back into traffic.

5. Ensure the the sirens aren't for you

Not all sirens are created equal, and nor do they always mean the same thing. If you glance in the rear-view mirror and see a stern-looking police officer staring back at you, you're going to want to think about pulling over as soon as it's safe to do so, rather than waiting for them to go around you. Sadly, they won't.

Yes, this is the worst siren of all, but it's also the one it's most important to obey with great obsequiousness.

6. Stick to the rules:

A screaming siren is not an open-door to law-breaking madness. Yes, you have to wait at a green light to let an emergency vehicle cross in front of you, but most states and territories specifically point out that you can't run a red light to get out of the way, and nor can you speed or break any other road rules to let an emergency vehicle by.

Again, common sense is a requirement here.

7. What happens if you don't get out of the way?

Every state and territory in Australia has its own specific rules surrounding emergency vehicles - with fines and demerit point penalties of varying ferocity -  but they're all comprehensively summed up with the following two offences: failing to give way to a police or emergency vehicle, and moving into the path of a police or emergency vehicle.

NSW authorities, for example, word it pretty clearly: "Get out of the way, so the emergency vehicle has a clear passage through traffic." And not doing so will earn you an on-the-spot fine of $433, and four demerit points.

In Queensland, you're facing a $284 fine and three demerit points, while in Victoria, the fine is $272 and three demerit points. Block the way in Western Australia, and you're facing a $400 and three-point penalty, while in South Australia it will cost you $410 and three points.

Sure, most of the above is common sense, but sense commonly flies out the window when a siren erupts somewhere behind you. So if you know someone who faffs about in front of emergency vehicles, send them over this way, so we can not explain the sign that warns about opening the door on a moving plane.

What's the stupidest thing you've seen someone do when trying to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle? Tell us in the comments below.

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