A correspondent has drawn these two stories from New Zealand to my attention:
- ‘Wellington firefighters stop at red lights’ Radio New Zealand (Online) (30 May 2016) and
- Thomas Manch and Talia Shadwell ‘Wellington volunteer firefighter being prosecuted after crash on way to house fire’ The Dominion Post (Online) (May 30 2016)
The story relates to reaction from the fire service after a volunteer was charged with ‘careless driving’ after a collision when responding to a fire call – ‘The driver of the car involved in the collision had to be cut from it, and was taken to hospital with broken ribs after the vehicle spun 180 degrees on impact’. The article by Manch and Shadwell quotes the defendant’s solicitor saying:
“What more [he] could have done is beyond me, aside of course from just completely stopping at the intersection and not going through it.
“We want our emergency responders, such as ambulance drivers, police, fire, to get to the scene of an emergency as quickly as possible.
“If they’re paranoid about being charged with offences such as going through red lights, carefully, then they are not going to get to the scene of emergencies as quickly as they should do.”
A senior Wellington firefighter, who declined to be named, has confirmed that some firefighters in his brigade would now stop at red lights, fearing they might cause a crash.
“From instances in our brigade, drivers are taking particular care, even to the point that, when they get stuck in traffic, they’re turning their lights and sirens off and waiting for traffic to clear,” he told RNZ.
Of course we want emergency services ‘to get to the scene of an emergency as quickly as possible’ but as ‘quickly as possible’ has to take into account the driving conditions and the presence of other road users. No matter what the emergency, it can’t warrant killing or injuring other road users. Further, an accident will delay the emergency services more than turning off the lights and sirens or stopping at a red light. As a police spokesperson, quoted in the article says:
“No emergency justifies causing an accident. All responders should be aware that, if they crash, they do not get to the emergency, and they put other road users at risk.
But what else could the driver do? Perhaps nothing but that is not for either his lawyer, or the police to determine. People overlook the fact that the arbiter of what is ‘reasonable’ or ‘justifiable’ or ‘necessary’ (or whatever the relevant legal test is) is not the police but the court. There is the idiom that ‘Not only must justice be done; it must be seen to be done’ – that is not that (or just) that outcomes should have the appearance of justice, but that people can see the process – that the process is open and public. Courts are open to the public, anyone can sit in and watch proceedings and the judicial officer must hear both sides and must deliver the reasons for the decision in public. That decision is then subject to review by the appeal courts, again in public.
Imagine if your loved one had been killed or injured in an accident involving an emergency service vehicle, and imagine too if the police said ‘we’ll they were proceeding to an emergency and we want to encourage our heroes so no charges will be laid’. Whatever the merits of the case that would be outrageous. The idea of the rule of law is that we are all ruled by law – including the emergency services. The police can’t have a special rule or an attitude that ‘the firies or paramedics are part of the thin ‘blue line’ so there are special rules for them’. There are indeed special rules, in Australia we’ve talked often about r 306 of the Australian Road Rules, but these are still part of the law, and the law still says that drivers must take care to avoid injury to other road users. So if the circumstances suggest negligence (or worse) emergency service drivers can expect to be charged because it is the role of the police to put that sort of case before a court. It is open to the defendant to put to the court the facts and arguments to the effect that the driving was not negligent and that the driver was taking all due care and did all that he or she could have done. The answer to the question – was the driver guilty of the offence charged? – is then left to the community’s representatives, the jury.
The police spokesperson is correct ‘All responders should be aware that, if they crash, they do not get to the emergency, and they put other road users at risk’ and they can expect to face criminal charges particularly if someone is killed or injured. If that reality causes drivers to go ‘…through red lights, carefully…’, ‘stop at red lights’ or ‘when they get stuck in traffic, … [turn] their lights and sirens off and waiting for traffic to clear’ then that has to be for the good.