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Stop! What to do when you see flashing lights on the road

Whether you’re a new driver, or are seasoned on the road, seeing flashing lights out of the corner of your rearview mirror can be a little nerve-wracking.

Brush up on the steps you should take the next time you encounter a vehicle with flashing lights while driving.

Red Flashing Lights

Red flashing lights identify emergency vehicles, such as firetrucks, ambulances or public-utility emergency vehicles.

If you’re behind the wheel when you see a vehicle with flashing red lights approaching from any direction you should bring your vehicle to a stop as close as possible to the right-hand curb or edge of the road, as quickly as is safe to do so. Remember to signal, look around and use caution when stopping your vehicle because other drivers may not yet be aware of the emergency vehicle approaching.

If you are on a one-way road, or a divided highway with more than two lanes of traffic, bring your vehicle to the closest curb or edge of the road. Make sure your vehicle is parallel to the road and not blocking any intersections or highway on/off ramps. It’s also important not to pull over to the shoulder of the road, as the emergency vehicle may be travelling along it if the lanes are blocked.

If you are in an intersection about to make a turn when you see the red flashing lights approaching, abandon the turn and continue straight instead. Pull over to the right as soon as you have cleared the intersection. This will prevent the possibility of colliding with the emergency vehicle if the emergency vehicle were to pass through your intended turn.

Once you have stopped your vehicle, wait for the emergency vehicle to pass and look out for other oncoming emergency vehicles that may be responding to the same call. Once the path is clear, signal and carefully merge back into traffic.

If there is an emergency vehicle stopped on the roadway and you are passing in the same direction you must clear the lane next to the stopped emergency vehicle, if possible. If you are unable to move over safely, you must slow down to less than the posted speed limit and pass with extreme caution. Failure to move or slow down your vehicle can result in a fine and three demerit points under the Ontario Move Over Law.

Note that some regions in Ontario have started to implement a blue light that flashes intermittently between red and white lights on emergency vehicles to improve visibility.

Red and Blue Flashing Lights

Red and blue flashing lights signal a police vehicle. Police vehicles are classified as emergency vehicles and should be treated in the same manner discussed above.

However, if the police vehicle has its red and blue flashing lights flashing and is approaching behind your vehicle you must bring your vehicle to a stop outside of traffic lanes. The enforcement officer may give you direction as to where to stop. If this is the case, you must follow the officer’s directions. If the officer does not provide specific directions, try to stop your vehicle on the shoulder of the road. If this is not possible, turn on to the nearest side street and carefully bring your vehicle to a stop.

Amber Flashing Lights

Amber flashing lights signal a tow truck.

Tow trucks are also included under Ontario’s Move Over Law, and failure to clear lanes or slow down for stopped tow trucks can result in the same penalties.

Blue Flashing Lights

Blue flashing lights signal snowplows and road service vehicles.

If you are sharing the road with a snowplow, passing is not recommended. Though snowplows tend to travel at a maximum speed of 60 km/h, the road conditions ahead of the snow plow can be very severe and crossing over different snow levels can put you, your vehicle, and your passengers at risk.

Flashing Lights on a Stopped School Bus

If you meet a stopped school bus with its overhead signal lights flashing red and its stop sign extended you must stop your vehicle at a safe distance before reaching the bus, regardless of whether you are driving behind the bus or are approaching it from the front. You must keep your vehicle stopped until the bus moves, or its alternating signal lights have stopped flashing.

If you are driving on the other side of a roadway divided by a median and are approaching the stopped school bus from the front you are not required to stop your vehicle. However, you should still proceed with caution.

Failure to stop and wait for a school bus with its upper lights flashing can result in a $400 to $2,000 fine and six demerit points for a first offence. Even if you were not the driver, but are the vehicle’s registered owner, you can be issued fines up to $2,000.  

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