By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh
As of Saturday, September 1, a new road rule was put in place in NSW that requires motorists to slow down to 40km/h when passing stationary emergency vehicles. These include police cars, ambulances, and fire engines – that are displaying red and blue flashing lights.
The new law being trialled is to watch over the safety of emergency service workers at roadside incidents, lasting for a 12-month period. The NSW Government will work with police to examine the impact that the new law has on road safety and traffic.
According to Transport for NSW, the new road rule to slow down applies to school zones, various work zones and areas where there is high pedestrian activity. The rule is also applicable to motorists journeying in both directions, unless a median strip happens to divide the lanes. In this case, only the drivers travelling on the same side as the emergency vehicle must reduce the speed.
Head of NSW Centre for Road Safety, Bernard Carlon, commented upon the new rule to safely reduce your speed, saying that it will provide extra protection for all emergency workers and volunteers who respond to crashes and other incidents on our roads.
“We want to ensure that people protecting us on our road network don’t become casualties while doing their jobs. This rule will give extra protection and confidence that at the end of a shift they can go home safely to families and friends,” Mr Carlon said.
Following the trial period, all authorities concerned will decide whether the law will come into permanent effect.
Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia have all imposed similar slow down rules, with South Australia even requiring drivers to slow down to 25km/h.
Why is the New Traffic Law Unfair and Dangerous to Road Users?
The truth is, while it’s easier for light vehicles to suddenly slow down, it takes longer for heavier vehicles to be required to do the same.
This can have fatal or life-threatening consequences to road users. On a practical level, a motorcycle or small car travelling on a 100-speed zone can suddenly slow down to 40km/h, while the truck travelling behind will take longer to reach that 40-limit speed- increasing the chances of a fatal rear end collision.
The new traffic law also has the consequences of unfairly penalising heavy vehicle drivers in those circumstances.
Since the new law’s implementation, according to Mr Pearce, members of the Motorcycle Council have expressed their uneasiness surrounding the slow down rule “almost unanimously.”
At the heart of this is the fear that motorcyclists tend 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,” Mr Pearce said.
The Adviser on Compliance for the National Road Transport Association, Richard Calver, has also expressed similar concerns, voicing that the organisation worries significantly for truck drivers. This is because as heavier vehicles, trucks have a harder time slowing down than light vehicles.
Mr Calver believes that while truck drivers can slow down to the extent of their “practicability,” this may not necessarily match the advised 40km/h point, and as such, it is unfair for police to hit 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,” Mr Calver said.
Instead, he believes that as long as they are decelerating, then they’ve done the right thing.
What is the Law and Penalties for Failing to Slow Down to 40km/h?
The new traffic law in NSW under NSW Road Rule 78-1(2) requires motorists to slow down to 40km/h when passing stationary emergency vehicles that display flashing red or blue lights. You are required to maintain the 40-speed limit at least until a sufficient distance past the emergency vehicle.
The reason why there needs to be a sufficient distance past the emergency vehicle, is to ensure the safety of any others near the vehicle.
This also means that motorists are required to slow down to a 40km/h speed while passing a police car that’s pulled over another motorist on the side of the road.
You are not required to comply with this law if you are driving on the opposite side of the road separated by a median strip (which is where there’s a structure on the road that separates traffic going in opposite directions).
However, you will still be required to slow down to a 40 speed if the emergency vehicle is stationary on the mediun strip- in which case motorists on both sides of the road are required to follow this rule.
Consequently, under the new slow down rule, motorists are to maintain their speed at 40km/h until they are distanced enough from the vehicle to avoid being a cause of danger to anyone in proximity.
For example, based on published guidelines, when driving past a fire truck with flashing lights and the driver can see firefighters trying to combat a blaze a few metres up the road, they should keep to a lower speed for longer than if they were simply moving past a police officer who had pulled over a motorist.
Motorists found violating the rule are up for a whopping $448 fine and will lose three demerit points. Those charged with this offence can choose not to pay the fine and ‘court elect’ the penalty notice which allows them to go to court to either plead not guilty and dispute the allegation or plead guilty and ask for leniency, such as a conditional release order (formerly called a section 10 dismissal NSW) which results in no demerit points and no fine.
However, those that do court elect will face the ability for a Magistrate to impose a maximum court penalty of $2200 in addition to the 3 demerit points.
“This is comparable with the current penalty when it is determined that a motorist has driven negligently in the presence of obstructions or hazards, including stopped emergency vehicles and personnel,” Transport for NSW said in a statement.
Failing to comply with this new law by failing to slow down to 40km/h, where an accident results can have devastating consequences of possibly facing charges of negligent driving causing death or negligent driving causing grievous bodily harm, or negligent driving that doesn’t occasion death or grievous bodily harm under section 117 of the Road Transport Act 2013 (NSW).
A penalty of up to 18 months imprisonment and/or $3,300 fine, in addition to a 3 years automatic driver licence disqualification (with an option to reduce this to a minimum 1-year disqualification) period applies for negligent driving occasioning death.
A penalty of up to 9 months imprisonment and/or $2,200 fine, in addition to an automatic driver licence disqualification period of 3 years (with an option for the court to reduce this to a minimum 1-year disqualification) period applies for negligent driving occasioning grievous bodily harm NSW.
However, there is no automatic driver licence disqualification period for failing to slow down to 40km/h when passing stationary emergency vehicles or for negligent driving that doesn’t occasion death or grievous bodily harm.
Negligent driving that doesn’t occasion death or grievous bodily harm however does carry a court fine of up to $1,100 compared to the $2,200 maximum fine that a court can impose for failing to slow down to a 40 speed.
Negligent driving also carries 3 demerit points and a fine of $448 if dealt with by way of a penalty notice.
Similarly, there are other on-the-spot fines of $448 with 3 demerit points attached to each of the following traffic offences in NSW:
- Failing to give way to police or emergency vehicles under Rule 79(1) of the NSW Road Rule;
- Failing to move out of the path, or moving into the path of an approaching police or emergency vehicle displaying a flashing blue or red light or sounding alarm under Rule 78(1) and (2) of the NSW Road Rule;
- Increasing speed when passing a stationary emergency response vehicle under Rule 78-1(3) of the NSW Road Rule.
Lobby Groups Fear New Road Rule Puts Drivers’ Lives at Risk
Since coming into place, NSW lobby groups are appealing for the slow down rule to be overhauled because of concerns that it puts motorists’ lives at risk. It is claimed that there is “no magic in 40km/h” – a speed that, even though slow, could still prove deadly.
According to Chairman of the Motorcycle Council of NSW, Steve Pearce, the road rule could prove fatal on motorways and freeways, particularly where drivers are already moving at 110km/h and required to slam down on the brakes in order to be compliant with the law.
“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,” Mr Pearce said.
“Anyone who has driven on a high-speed road knows the effect of braking suddenly from 110km/h to 40km/h.
“The resulting snaking to traffic can produce a trail of rear end collisions and more often than not this is what happens.”
So, is the New Road Rule “Equitable”?
According to Road Freight NSW – the state’s peak industry organisation that represents trucking operations – if the new rule to slow down is to be “equitable,” then it should consider the disparities between light and heavy vehicles.
CEO Simon O’Hara commented of the situation and the need for laws to be applied equitably.
“It would be a perverse outcome if a heavy vehicle was involved in an accident as a result of light vehicles slowing down quickly to 40km/h when the heavy vehicle cannot,” Mr O’Hara said.
“Our members will adhere to all NSW laws, but would seek to ensure that these laws are equitably applied in circumstances where one size doesn’t fit all.”