There is no doubt that paramedics perform a vital and extremely difficult role in our society.
But did you know that, in certain circumstances, ambulance drivers who break the road rules by speeding or running red light cameras can get fined and incur demerit points?
Hundreds of speeding tickets are issued each month, and one recent story found that some ambulance drivers were penalised for just doing four or five kilometres over the limit.
Like the rest of us, ambulance drivers who clock up too many demerit points can end up losing their licences.
But ambulance drivers aren’t always penalised – nor should they be.
What are the rules for ambulance drivers?
There are several categories for emergencies in NSW.
Category One is the most serious, covering situations where a patient’s condition is so dire that it warrants the use of emergency driving procedures – including sirens and/or flashing lights.
Traffic fines will normally be waived if it can be established that an ambulance driver was responding to a Code One emergency.
But what about emergencies that are not classed as Code One but are still serious?
Should ambulance drivers be penalised for rushing to attend?
Some argue that ambulances drivers should have to pay fines while on duty if they are unable to justify breaking the road rules. This is because speeding and running red lights can put all road users at risk.
Others say that ambulance drivers should only incur penalties in extreme situations, as they are already under great pressures to perform and are just trying to help those in need as quickly as possible – whether Code One or not. They say that penalising drivers for exceeding the speed limit by as little as five kilometres on their way to an incident is not justified.
According to the NSW Ambulance Service Standard Operating Policy, ambulance drivers are required to follow the road rules, with a few exemptions.
In order to claim an exemption, drivers must show that:
1. They were exercising reasonable care;
2. It was reasonable for the rule not to apply; and
3. The vehicle was displaying a blue or red flashing light or sounding an alarm
The guidelines also state that drivers who are exceeding the speed limit must:
1. Drive so that they are still able to stop safely in the distance which they can see is clear
2. Drive at a speed appropriate to the circumstances
3. Remember that doubling the speed quadruples the stopping distance
4. Remember that no emergency is great enough to justify an accident
If these conditions are not met, ambulance drivers can be penalised.
According to Ambulance Employees Australia secretary Steve McGhie, the fines reflect the mounting demands that paramedics are faced with – which are leading to unfilled shifts, stress leave and resignations.
The response time for Code One emergencies is supposed to be 15 minutes, but in some Sydney metropolitan areas it is up to 25 minutes, and in some country areas it can be as high as 45 minutes or more.
McGhie says that the pressure to speed is now worse than ever, and some understanding and leniency should be shown.
What about breaking the road rules to make-way for an ambulance?
It is not just ambulance drivers that may fall victim to rigidly-enforced minor traffic infringements.
Car drivers who disobey the law in order to accommodate for ambulances must watch out too.
One driver who was stopped at traffic lights rolled through them as he heard sirens and saw the blazing lights of an ambulance behind him.
Unfortunately for him, his good deed was caught on by a red light camera.
He was angry that he got an infringement notice in the mail contested the fine in the local court.
The Magistrate dismissed the charge and waived the fine, but he was shocked to find that it was not the end of the matter.
Although the case was dismissed in court, the RMS still deducted three demerit points.
Even after writing to the State Debt Recovery office, and provided written confirmation from the NSW Ambulance Service that one of their ambulances did run a red light at 11:26 that day, he was still not excused.
Although road rules save lives, there are times when their rigid application can lead to unfair outcomes.