Can I go over the speed limit if it’s an emergency?
Police officers seem to do it all the time. Even without any apparent emergency, it’s not uncommon to see police flying down the road at outrageous speeds, only to see that same police cruiser parked outside a coffee shop when you catch up a few minutes later. Police, of course, are given exemptions by the law as long as they meet certain criteria to prove that they disregarded the law because of an emergency. But can the regular law-abiding driver do the same? What if you needed to get to the hospital in an emergency? Or what if you are a surgeon, and must race to the hospital to do life-saving work? In those cases, can you go over the speed limit if it’s an emergency?
Surprisingly, the courts are not often lenient on allowing drivers to speed even in cases of presumed emergency. There’s even a case of a police officer being convicted of speeding-related offences because of his actions involving a police pursuit!
My wife is extremely pregnant, officer. We need to get to the hospital NOW!
This case involved a driver whose wife began having contractions as they were driving home. She was also bleeding, and neither the driver nor his wife had a cell phone they could use to call for emergency help.
The driver decided he had no other choice but to speed to a hospital in another town where a caesarean section could be performed. He was pulled over less than 30 minutes into the drive. The couple asked the officer for an escort, but were denied and given a speeding ticket instead. Shortly after, the couple were pulled over again, for speeding. This time the officer called for an ambulance.[pullquote]it’s not uncommon to see police flying down the road at outrageous speeds, only to see that same police cruiser parked outside a coffee shop…[/pullquote]
The driver even presented a note from the doctor, who said it was “unavoidable” for the couple to speed to the hospital. The court disagreed. The man was fined about $400 and had his licence suspended.
On appeal, the court upheld the sentence and said that “at these speeds the accused was a clear danger” to himself and others on the highway; and even suggested that the driver – who didn’t have a cell phone – should have just driven to the closest hospital to flag down an ambulance.
I am a doctor, officer. And they need me at the hospital!
This case from 2015 involved a doctor who, already on his way home from work, received a call that he had to get back “right away” for a patient who was severely ill. He was pulled over by Vancouver police and issued a ticket.
The doctor was convicted of the offence when the matter came to a hearing. His lawyer, aware of the law, negotiated a very advantageous plea agreement and the doctor instructed his lawyer to take the deal. Then he has second thoughts. The doctor appealed his guilty plea, but he did not appeal his conviction in time. In dismissing his appeal the court addressed the merits his defence for speeding:
“The defence essentially is that, as a physician who is needed to come to the aid of a seriously ill patient, he is excused from those provisions of the Motor Vehicle Act relating to speeding.
In my view, his defence has no merit.”
But for police officers, it’s OK to speed, right?
Yes and no. Section 122 of the Motor Vehicle Act provides exemptions for emergency vehicles to exceed the speed limit, to go past a stop sign or red light without stopping, to travel in opposing lanes, and to stop or stand in traffic, as long as regulations are followed.
You can see the regulations here: they govern topics such as considerations for engaging in a police pursuit, emergency response by police officers and other emergency vehicle operators, rules for entering an intersection, among other concerns.
Having said that, police officers cannot ignore traffic laws if there is no emergency, even if they are driving their police vehicles and are on-duty.
An RCMP officer in BC found out the hard way when he was pulled over by another Mountie. The officer who pulled him over didn’t know he was a cop at first – the officer who received the ticket was in an unmarked vehicle – but decided to give him a ticket for speeding anyway.
How fast was the speeding cop going? 147 km/h in a 110 km/h zone. Not even enough to qualify for excessive speeding. But rules are rules. The officer who received the ticket challenged it, arguing that he was on-duty and on the way to a work-related course in Vancouver.
The officer said he had cruise control set at 130 km/h, since he thought there was a 20 km/h “grace or tolerance” for the speed limit, and was going downhill at the time.
The court found the officer guilty. It found that the officer failed to perform a risk analysis set out in the regulations for the s. 122 exemption and couldn’t justify exceeding the speed limit at the time.
What if lights and sirens are on to pursue a fleeing crook?
In most cases, yes, officers would be allowed to speed to pursue a fleeing criminal. However, it’s about the circumstances and whether risk assessment factors were accounted for. In an Ontario case, a police officer was found guilty of stunt driving after travelling at 191 km/h in a 80 km/h zone (stunt driving can be defined as 50 km/h over speed limit), while pursuing a gas thief.
It was undisputed that there was, at some point during the night, a police pursuit of a gasoline thief. It was also undisputed that the officer was travelling at that speed in response to the gasoline theft. However, the case came down to how there was a call from dispatch in a neighbouring jurisdiction for all pursuing units to “terminate” the chase.
It was a few minutes after this call from dispatch that the officer in question, while speeding at 191 km/h, crashed into a ditch. The court found the officer was reckless and lacked consideration for the safety of the public and for himself. It said that even though the call for officers to “terminate” the pursuit came from a neighbouring police jurisdiction, the officer was bound to follow that instruction.
While this case occurred in Ontario, like almost every other police jurisdiction in the world, this officer was permitted to speed – but had to meet certain criteria to do so.
What if it was necessary to speed? If there was no other choice?
It’s easy to imagine a number of scenarios where there is no other choice but to get somewhere quickly. After all, this is the same reason emergency vehicles are given an exemption. So what if there was a life-threatening issue that could only be resolved through speeding?
The law is not clear on this matter. On the one hand, speeding is what is referred to as an “absolute liability” offence. An absolute liability offence is an offence where there’s no requirement to prove you intended to break the law, or that you had failed to take reasonable care to not break the law. In other words, regardless of the reason you broke the law, you’re still guilty.
However, even in absolute liability cases, it is possible for an accused to claim a defence of necessity. A leading case on the defence of necessity was established in 1984. And among its considerations, the ruling had determined that the defence of necessity requires that there is “no reasonable legal alternative” to breaking the law. In other words, breaking the law was “inevitable, unavoidable” and there was “no reasonable opportunity for an alternative course of action that does not involve a breach of the law.”
As you can imagine, it can be difficult to prove that speeding was an absolute necessity and that there was really no alternative whatsoever but to speed. The important point, however, is that there is a defence for going over the speed limit if it’s an emergency. As BC Driving lawyers, we are some of the sharpest minds in driving law, and are very familiar with these defences. Give us a call. 604-608-1200.