New speed rule aims to safeguard emergency workers on roadside

Paramedic Charlotte Paton was almost hit by a semi-trailer while treating someone on the side of the road.  Picture: EDDIE JIM
Paramedic Charlotte Paton was almost hit by a semi-trailer while treating someone on the side of the road. Picture: EDDIE JIM

Charlotte Paton doesn't remember much about what was going through her mind as the semi-trailer barrelled towards her, apart from the obvious: move. 

The paramedic was only doing her job. On that Monday morning in May she was treating the driver of a silver Nissan Pulsar who had crashed into a guard rail on the side of the Monash Freeway.

Suddenly, a bystander screamed "run". When Ms Patton looked around, she saw a red B-double hurtling towards her.

"I just thought I needed to get out of the way," she said. "We ran down the emergency lane and jumped the barrier. Thankfully, when I looked up everybody was OK, because these injuries could have been really bad."

The truck had ploughed through an ambulance, police car and the Pulsar before jack-knifing on to the opposite side of the road. Thankfully, no one was hurt. 

Ms Paton shared her story at the announcement of a new rule requiring drivers to slow down to 40km/h when passing an emergency vehicle parked on the side of the road.

The change will come into effect on July 1 in an effort to reduce the number of deaths and injuries among roadside emergency workers.

Road users who don't cut their speed while overtaking a stationary or slow-moving emergency vehicle with its lights and sirens on will be hit with a $277 fine. 

The rule will apply to police, ambulance, fire, SES and VicRoads vehicles on all types of roads, including all lanes on freeways. 

Situations in which a driver is expected to slow down include a regulation traffic stop by a police officer. No demerit points will apply to the rule, but the maximum court penalty will be $793.

Pulling a driver over is one of the most dangerous jobs for police, says acting assistant commissioner of road policing Deb Robertson.

"We've lost 28 police in the course of history from roadside intercepts; the last one was in 2005," she said. 

Ms Robertson said the rule was an extension of the existing requirement that drivers give way when an emergency vehicle is driving with its lights and sirens on. 

Roads Minister Luke Donnellan said that while most people did the right thing, there was a small number of people on the roads who put themselves before the safety of others. 

He said there would be an extensive ad campaign to ensure road users were aware of the change. 

"What we're telling the community now is that we want all people to slow down when they see an incident, when they see flashing lights, when they hear a siren," he said. 

The minister cited a survey in which one in five emergency workers had experienced a near miss while stopped on the roadside. 

He acknowledged the rule would be difficult to enforce if emergency workers were focused on responding to an incident, but said it was about creating cultural change.

Application of the rule would be at the discretion of Victoria Police, he said. 

"It's very difficult to have a hard-and-fast rule in this space," he said. 

Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt said the rules would be applied with a "healthy dose of common sense".

"What we need to remember is that police and emergency services are doing just that," he said. "They are responding to emergencies to assist the community."