Blue Light Use
We are often asked where people stand on fitting blue, green or amber lights to their vehicles. Many people find the regulations difficult to read and interpret and are unsure about the use of lights on their vehicles. Because of this, we have put together a summary of the regulations in straightforward English.
What counts as an emergency vehicle?
An emergency vehicle is classed as a vehicle used:
- for police purposes (but not necessarily a police vehicle, e.g. search and rescue)
- for firefighting purposes (but not necessarily a fire brigade vehicle) including local councils and the Forestry Commission as well as fire salvage work
- for ambulance purposes (but not necessarily an ambulance vehicle, e.g.cave rescue) including the movement of sick, injured or disabled people and for moving human organs
- for bomb disposal
- for nuclear accidents
- for mountain rescue
- by the Royal Air Force Armament Support Unit
- by the National Blood Service
- by HM Coastguard
- for mine rescue
- by the RNLI for launching lifeboats
- by HM Revenue and Customs for serious crime
- by the military special forces (e.g. the SAS) for a national security emergency
Main definitions: The Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations 1989 Part I (2)(2)
Adding HMRC: The Road Vehicles Lighting (Amendment) Regulations 2005 Section (3)(3)(h)
Adding Special Forces: The Road Traffic Exemptions (Special Forces) (Variation and Amendment) Regulations 2011 Section (4)
Adding all mountain rescue, not just RAF: The Road Vehicles Lighting and Goods Vehicles (Plating and Testing) (Amendment) Regulations 2009 Section (3)(b)
Use of Blue Lights
There is no authority that gives permission to use blue lights. Drivers and owners are simply required to operate their vehicles within the law.
Only emergency vehicles can be fitted with blue flashing lights, or anything that looks like a blue flashing light, whether working or not.
The only times when blue lights can be used are when responding to an emergency, at the scene of an emergency, when wanting to let people know you are there or wanting to let people know that there is a hazard on the road.
Fitting blue lights: The Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989 Part II Section 16
Use of blue lights: The Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989 Part II Section 27(3)(6)
Police, fire and ambulance vehicles are allowed to use a sirens or similar audible emergency warning devices. Other specifically mentioned permitted users are bomb disposal, blood service, coastguard, mine rescue, RAF mountain rescue and lifeboat launching vehicles. In 2005 the regulations were changed to allow the Ministry of Defence’s nuclear response team and Revenue & Customs to use sirens too.
Emergency services can use the normal horn or the siren when stationary and at night, unlike the restrictions of a normal car horn.
Some devices that are similar to sirens are allowed on non-emergency vehicles. These include car alarms, reversing alarms and chimes on ice cream vans.
The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 (Part II F 37 and Part IV E 99)
The Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations 2005
Blue Light Driver Training
There is no requirement for people driving emergency vehicles to be trained beyond a normal driving licence. Drivers of police, fire and ambulance vehicles who wish to be exempted from speed limits will be required to be officially trained. This rule has been included in a 2006 Act but it has not yet been made law. At present there is no indication as to when it will be made law. There are concerns that there will be too much demand for the existing driver training courses.
Road Safety Act 2006 Section 19
Changes made in 2009 allowed mountain rescue vehicles to be officially classed as an emergency vehicle and use blue lights in their own right. Previously they operated as vehicles used for ambulance purposes and personnel carriers and control units were not permitted to use blue lights.
Mountain Rescue vehicles classed as ambulances (used mainly for transporting injured people) can operate as ambulances and have a range of exemptions from the rules of the road, including speed limits. Mountain Rescue vehicles used for non-ambulance purposes (such as personnel transportation, equipment supply or control unit) can use blue lights but do not have exemption from speed limits.
Retro-reflective material applied to vehicles falls under the same rules as the lighting regulations. Blue reflective markings on the side of a vehicle are not permitted unless it is a police vehicle. Matt markings that are not reflective are allowed.
The colours allowed on the SIDE of vehicles are:
- Police: blue, yellow, white, amber
- Fire: red, yellow, amber
- Ambulance: green, yellow, amber, white
- DVSA (was VOSA): yellow, amber, silver, white
- HETO (was HATO): yellow, amber, white
The colours allowed on the REAR of vehicles (chevron markings) are:
- Police, Fire, Ambulance, DVSA (was VOSA) and HETO (was HATO): red, yellow and orange.
Explanatory Memorandum To The Road Vehicles Lighting And Goods Vehicle (Plating And Testing) (Amendment) Regulations 2009 And The Road Vehicles (Construction And Use)(Amendment)(No.4) Regulations 2009 Page 46
The blue light regulations applying to emergency vehicles used to be just for motor vehicles. In 2005 the rules were changed to cover all vehicles, including cycles. This reflects the increased use of cycles to respond to emergency calls using blue lights and sirens particularly in the ambulance service.
The Road Vehicles Lighting (Amendment) Regulations 2005 Section 3(3)(A)
Abnormal Load Escort Vehicles
In 2005 a new class of vehicle was introduced called an Abnormal Load Escort Vehicle. Routine escort duties were previously performed by the police. The lighting regulations were changed to allow these escort vehicles to use amber flashing lights above 25 mph.
The Road Vehicles Lighting (Amendment) Regulations 2005 Section 3(2) and Section 8
Exemptions from Road Signs
Police, fire and ambulance can exceed the speed limit if it would hinder progress. This includes ambulance rapid response units operated under the NHS.
Police, fire, ambulance, bomb disposal and blood service can drive through a red traffic light and disregard a keep left sign if it would hinder progress and can be done so without endangering anyone. A rule of thumb is that a red traffic light should be considered as a give way sign.
Police, fire and ambulance can stop on zig-zag lines at the side of the road but no exemption is given forcrossing double white lines down the middle of the road.
Sometimes emergency vehicles may need to disobey other signs and regulations. This will depend on the professional judgment of the driver and they could be liable for prosecution if the act was not proportionate to the circumstances.
Road signs can be disregarded by anyone if directed to do so by a police constable in uniform. This gives police drivers the opportunity to give themselves permission to disregard a road sign.
Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 Section 87
The Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002
Keep left: Section 3(15)(2)
Double white lines: Section 4(26)(5b)
Zig-zag lines: Section 4(27)(3c)
Red traffic light: Section 5(36b)
Green Flashing Lights
Green flashing lights can be used on a vehicle that is carrying a registered medical doctor on an emergency call. The green lights do not offer any exemptions from the rules of the road and are surely to alert road users to the importance of the journey and to hopefully ease the vehicle’s progress through traffic.
When green flashing lights are used in conjunction with blue flashing lights, the greater authority of the blue lights give the vehicle more exemptions.
The Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989 Part II Section 11(2m)
Other Lighting Rules
Normal motor vehicles must comply with the standard lighting rules. These can be summarised as only showing white light to the front, only showing red light to the rear, with the exception of indicators and reversing lights. However specific emergency vehicles can show lights of different colours to make them stand out.
A police control vehicle can show blue and white light in all directions from a chequered dome on the roof. A police vehicle can have a constant blue light showing.
A fire service control vehicle can show red and white light from a chequered dome or mast.
An ambulance service control vehicle can show green and white light from a chequered dome.
Headlights can be set to automatically flash only on an emergency vehicle and red rear fog lights can be lit when the vehicle is parked (this is not allowed on other vehicles).
Any flashing warning beacon that rotates must be mounted 1.2 meters above the ground. There are no restrictions on the size of the beam of light, wattage or intensity.
You must be able to clearly see one or more flashing warning lights from any reasonable position around the vehicle
Each warning light should an equal amount of time on and off (meaning strobes are not covered).
The Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989
Control units: Part II Section 11(2)
Headlights: Part II Section 13(2)
Rear fog lights: Part II Section 27(3)(3)
Positions: Schedule 16 (2,3 and 11)
Preserved Emergency Vehicles
Preserved emergency vehicles are not officially permitted to have blue lights attached to them when on the road, even if they are completely covered up and inoperable. Usually common sense prevails and if there is no way of being able to see the blue light unit then the police are happy. A 2008 petition created to change this law to the ‘common sense’ definition was not successful.
Lifeboat Crew Members
We are often asked by lifeboat crew volunteers if they can fit blue lights to their private cars to get to the lifeboat station quickly when they are alerted to an emergency by pager. The simple answer is no! The only land-going vehicles allowed to have blue flashing lights in this situation are RNLI vehicles specifically designed for the launching of a lifeboat. There are often tractor-type vehicles with the capability to drive into water. Other private lifeboat services are not permitted blue lights, unless being used for a dual purpose, e.g. an ambulance. Crew members are not permitted to use any other colour of warning beacon either. It would not be appropriate to use amber lights as this situation falls outside of the definition of amber light use (see above) and would not speed the journey up at all. One legal alternative is to have a sign on the car to indicate the driver is part of the lifeboat crew. This does not permit any exemptions from road traffic law but does convey the intended message.
We are often asked by retained firefighters if they can fit blue lights to their private cars to get to the fire station quickly when they are called out to an emergency. The simple answer is no! To be permitted to use blue lights, the private car would need to be registered as an emergency vehicle, have insurance as an emergency vehicles, be approved for use by the fire brigade and the driver suitably trained to drive using blue lights. This situation is unlikely to be commonplace. No other colour of flashing light is allowed. One legal alternative is to have a sign on the car to indicate the driver is part of the fire brigade. This does not permit any exemptions from road traffic law but does convey the intended message. It should be noted however that senior fire officers are often given company cars fitted with blue lights as part of their job to respond to major incidents outside of their normal working hours.
Ambulance Community First Responders
We are often asked by first responders if they can fit blue lights to their private cars to get to calls quickly when they are called out to an emergency, particularly heart attacks and people who’ve stopped breathing. The normal answer is no, but to be sure speak to your local scheme coordinator. To be permitted to use blue lights, the private car would need to be insured as an emergency vehicle and be approved by the ambulance service. The ambulance service would also require the driver to be trained to run on blue lights. By the design of this service, responders should not have to travel far to emergency calls. During the journey to the emergency they have no exemptions of road traffic law.
Some ambulance services (including private ones) supply responders with a liveried-up car for their work. This may help other road users to see that an emergency response is in progress. In a small number of cases, community responders who are suitably trained are granted permission to use blue lights by individual ambulance services. In the former Staffordshire Ambulance Service area, responders were given vehicles fitted with blue lights but this was criticised by a Healthcare Commission report.
We have been asked a number of times about animal ambulances using blue flashing lights. When used on private land this is usually permissible, for instance at a racecourse with the organiser’s permission. However the lights should be covered up when on the road. The transportation of sick or injured animals does not fall into the definition of an ambulance for the purpose of the lighting regulations. Occasionally police will permit blue lights to be used on the road when being escorted by a police vehicle also showing blue flashing lights.
Some animal ambulance companies have an understanding with the local police that they can show blue light (switched on or not) on their vehicles. It is recommended that a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is written up and signed by both sides to help reduce the chance of a prosecution for incorrect lighting. This agreement would then only be valid in the local police force area, and not in any other part of the country.
The information on this page is provided in good faith and gives an overview of current legislation. You should satisfy yourself that you are complying with the current law as we cannot be held responsible for any mistakes or misinterpretations that exist.