This question comes from a NSW SES Volunteer who has found that:

… three times over the past five years I’ve been in the position that I’ve needed, while operational, to put casualties in my vehicle exceeding the number of passengers and in two of those time I have put kids under the age of 7 in the car without car seats. These times were all during emergencies and all done with the team doing a risk assessment concluding that this was the safest way to get them out. I’m aware the seatbelt law states “excluding emergency service vehicles” but I thought I’d ask for your assistance in confirming what the actual laws are.

So I have 2 questions,

  1. Can I have people in the car without seat belts?
  2. Can I have children under 7 in the car without a car seat?

Clearly I’m meaning in an SES vehicle and during and operation.

Have a look at this video and consider whether you think anyone would prosecute the bulldozer driver for removing these children to safety?  Is it better to leave someone to drown or risk being isolated than to put too many people in a car and to take them a short distance to safety?

The obligation to wear seat belts is set out in the Road Rules 2014 (NSW).   There is an exemption for people travelling in an emergency vehicle (rule 267(5)).  That rule says:

A person is exempt from wearing a seatbelt if:

(a) the person is a passenger in or on a[n] … emergency vehicle, and

… if the vehicle has 2 or more rows of seats-the person is not in the front row of seats or there is not a seating position available for the person in another row of seats…

That means the vehicle has to be an emergency vehicle and the person is not in the front row unless there is nowhere else for them to sit.

Remember that an emergency vehicle is a vehicle being operated by an emergency worker (which includes an SES member) providing transport in the course of an emergency (Road Rules 2014 (NSW) definition of ‘emergency vehicle’).  The critical question will be, should the matter be tested, ‘was this an emergency’?  What is an emergency, for the purposes of the road rules, is not defined, but one can infer that the relevant test will be ‘was it necessary to take that action to preserve life or prevent injury?’  if the answer is ‘yes’ then it was an emergency.  Answering that question, in turn requires consideration of a number of points.

Was it necessary?  Or was there some other alternative available?  Could other cars have been called in so as to not overload any single car? Could age appropriate child restraints be obtained?  Were there other rescue options such as boat or helicopter?  Answers to those questions have to consider what resources were available, how long they would take to get there, what were the risks of waiting?   Clearly all those things could be done but if it would take two days for someone to obtain child restraints, or consume the entire operational budget to charter another helicopter then it is permissible to rule those things out.  It is not just a question of ‘are those options theoretically open?’ but are they practically open.   If there is no practical alternative and there is a risk to the persons’ safety, including emotional safety of children who might be separated from their parents, then yes it is permissible to put them in an emergency vehicle and transport them.

Having made the decision to do so however, the next question is transport them to where?  The answer has to be to the nearest place of safety.  Driving further than is necessary to remove them from the danger moves from a response that is required by the ‘emergency’ to one that is merely convenient.  So the answer may be to drive the people to higher ground and there make arrangements for other cars and cars with appropriate child restraints to come and move the people on.

The essential question to always ask is ‘are we motivated by the best interests of the people in need of assistance?’   If the answer is ‘yes’ the action is probably OK. If the answer is ‘no’ so for example you don’t want to do something because you are afraid you’ll get into trouble, or you do want to act (in this case transport the people without appropriate restraint) because it’s getting late and you want to get home and it will be more convenient for you then you are not providing an ‘emergency response’ and the action will not be justified.