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What is an emergency vehicle?

>Every driver should know and understand what an emergency vehicle is. These are special vehicles that, in certain situations, have rights on the road that other road users do not have. In this article, we will discuss when a vehicle has privileges, whether it can be overtaken and what obligations apply to other road users.

Emergency vehicle – definition

The formal definition of an emergency vehicle is included in Art. 2 section 38 of the Road Traffic Law and reads:

“a vehicle emitting light signals in the form of blue flashing lights and simultaneous sound signals with a variable tone, driving with low beam or high beam headlights on. This definition also includes vehicles traveling in a column with emergency vehicles at the beginning and end, which additionally emit light signals in the form of red flashing lights.

Obligatory conditions

According to the law, for a vehicle to be considered an emergency vehicle, it has to meet two basic conditions:

  • belong to one of the emergency services (e.g. police, fire brigade, ambulance service)
  • use light and sound signals at a given moment

It is the simultaneous use of light and sound signals that lets other road users know that they are dealing with an emergency vehicle.

When is a vehicle considered an emergency vehicle?

Not every vehicle belonging to emergency services is automatically an emergency vehicle. The situational context of the vehicle is essential here. The vehicle is an emergency vehicle when participating in rescue operations, interventions or other urgent tasks where reaction time is important. 

For example, an ambulance driving with signals (lights and sounds) in the event of an accident is an emergency vehicle. However, the same ambulance, moving without its signals on, is subject to general road traffic regulations.

What emergency vehicles are there?

The most known are ambulances, police cars and fire trucks. Additionally, privileges may apply to vehicles belonging to various state or local government services that operate in the public interest. Regulations also allow for situations in which special authorizations may be granted to vehicles that do not belong to the standard services listed, but meet certain criteria and receive appropriate permission from the competent authorities.


An emergency vehicle in road traffic may be a motor vehicle of the:

  • fire fighting unit
  • emergency medical team
  • police
  • chemical rescue unit
  • border services
  • Internal Security Agency
  • Intelligence Agency
  • Central Anticorruption Bureau
  • Military Counterintelligence Service
  • Military Intelligence Service
  • Armed Forces of the Republic of Poland
  • Prison Service
  • State Protection Services
  • municipal guards
  • entities authorized to carry out mountain rescue activities
  • National Park Service
  • entities authorized to perform water rescue activities
  • National Revenue Administration used by the Customs and Tax Service
  • Road Transport Inspection
  • other units, if it is used in connection with saving human life or health – based on the permission of the interior minister

Obligations and conduct towards emergency vehicles

When an emergency vehicle appears on the road, all road users are required to take appropriate actions to enable it to pass quickly and safely. This usually means pulling up to the edge of the road and stopping if necessary to allow the vehicle to continue moving unimpeded. It is best to remain calm and not make hasty, ill-considered manoeuvres that may cause additional confusion or create a hazard on the road.

When an emergency vehicle approaches an intersection, even if other vehicles have a green light, they must stop and allow it to pass. This also applies to pedestrians and cyclists who should refrain from crossing the road if they see an emergency vehicle approaching.

Emergency corridor

From December 6, 2019, all road users are required to form the so-called emergency corridor in traffic jams or congestion on multi-lane roads to enable the rapid passage of emergency services. Drivers driving in the right lane should pull up as close as possible to the right edge of the road, and those driving in the left lane should move as close to the left edge as possible.

Can you overtake an emergency vehicle?

As a rule, overtaking an emergency vehicle is prohibited. This rule applies mainly in built-up areas and on single-lane roads. Although one could say that it is prohibited to overtake emergency vehicles whenever this may in any way interfere with the free passage of emergency services driving with sound and light signals.

When can you overtake an emergency vehicle?

Overtaking is permitted outside built-up areas, mainly on highways and expressways with more than one lane. Even if an emergency vehicle uses signals and has the right of way, other vehicles can overtake it as long as they do so safely and do not interfere with its driving in any way.

What is the fine for overtaking an emergency vehicle in a built-up area?

Until recently, such conduct was punishable with 3 penalty points and PLN 300. Current penalties are more stringent and amount to a PLN 1,000 fine and 10 penalty points. In the case of recidivism, i.e. committing the same prohibited act again within a period of 2 years, the fine increases to PLN 2,000.

Summary: knowledge of regulations is key

Very often there are situations in which road users panic at the sight of a vehicle moving with light and sound signals. This may result from not knowing the regulations and road savoir vivre. Remember to allow special vehicles to pass safely and unimpeded, even if it requires you to pull over to the side of the road.