What are green lights all about?

Flashing green lights are rarely seen in cities, but they are part of an important emergency response to rural areas.  In this article we highlight the use of green lights in the provision of prehospital and other health care in Scotland.

Please help us by sharing this article with others who may be visiting rural Scotland this summer.

You’re enjoying the amazing scenery to be found on the North Coast 500 route around northern Scotland.  Behind you, you notice a car with a flashing green light.  What does this mean?…

  1. it’s a funeral director attending a sudden death
  2. it’s a vet attending an emergency
  3. it’s a doctor attending a medical emergency
  4. it’s a fashion statement

The answer is 3.

We’ve written this article as a number of our members have highlighted increasing difficulties getting to emergency calls as other road users can seem unaware of the meaning of green lights.  As we head into another busy summer to welcome tourists and visitors to Scotland’s rural countryside and islands, we thought we might provide some information about the meaning of green lights.

The NC500 (North Coast 500) seems to have particular issues – perhaps as it has experienced a significant increase in the number of people travelling along its roads, who aren’t used to driving in rural/remote Scotland.  Here’s what one of our members recently described…

The NC500 is becoming a significant concern, in particular with groups of cars travelling nose to tail in convoy and not appreciating that they will not all fit into one passing place. This as I’m sure you can imagine causes complete gridlock. Thankfully we have very few emergency calls ourselves but both of us have experienced difficulty getting past slow traffic in recent weeks despite using green lights.

My particular one was a very urgent call to **** (young man, cardiac arrest, we were told, so you can imagine how keen I was to get there safely but as soon as possible). I found myself behind a group of 3 open top sports cars. On open road they were going fast enough for me not to need past but I could see that as soon as we reached a narrow section there would be a problem. Indeed at the first passing place they couldn’t all get in, and ended up with a prolonged negotiation with a large campervan not wanting to reverse.

I had green dashboard lights on and also tooted and flashed my lights, hoping they would stay where they were and let me pass once the campervan was away, but all I got was rude gestures in the air, and they moved off very slowly, continuing in very close convoy. I assume (hope?) that they did not notice the green lights or did not know what they meant but there are other similar tales which I’m afraid make me wonder.

Spot the Sandpiper responder? They work with all other emergency personnel, including ambulance, fire, police, lifeboat and mountain rescue teams. (Staged simulation – pic by Chris Hogge).

Across Scotland’s rural landscape, the Scottish Ambulance Service rely on over 500 volunteers (probably a lot more) to augment its emergency service.  As well as First Responders (local community members trained up to use a defib, oxygen, administer CPR and deliver vital emergency care to heart attack and other seriously ill patients), there are Sandpiper BASICS doctors, nurses and paramedics who make themselves available – including in their own time – to attend road accidents, cardiac arrests, seizures and lots of other medical emergencies.  Sometimes they will be requested to attend by the ambulance service directly, or they decide to attend a patient after a phone assessment or having been informed by another community member.  We work closely with our local ambulance crews, and national services such as Helimed, the Emergency Medical Retrieval Service and Coastguard helicopters.

Green flashing lights are permitted in law – The Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989 s 11 (2)(m) – to be used as “a warning beacon fitted to a vehicle used by a medical practitioner registered by the General Medical Council (whether with full, provisional or limited registration)”.  They do not permit drivers to be exempt from any road traffic laws, but serve as an important means of making other drivers aware that a doctor is on their way to an emergency call.  In rural areas – where traffic lights, 30mph speed limits and other restrictions are less frequent – it can make a significant difference if a clear passage can be enabled for doctors to attend emergencies as soon as possible.

Lights are usually only used in life-or-limb threatening situations – when time is of the essence.  Rural areas normally experience longer ambulance response times.  This is partly due to longer distances being travelled due to geography.  However many islands in Scotland have only one or two ambulances (which are normally also used for patient transport too) – so if they are unavailable, or if there are multiple casualties at an incident, a local GP, nurse or off-duty paramedic is often asked to assist.

So what should I do?

As with assisting any emergency vehicle with their progress, there is no need for erratic action.  However, it makes a significant difference to pull over safely, and allow a car behind you to get through.  If you see a doctor’s car approaching, plan ahead where possible to ‘create space’ in the road for them to pass other users, and use passing places on single track roads.  Please don’t stop on corners however, as this is a dangerous place to overtake, unless there is a clear view of the road ahead.

If it’s not safe to allow the car to pass, then don’t worry – just wait until the next suitable opportunity to pull over and let the vehicle past.

What about other responders?

The law allows only registered medical practitioners (doctors) to use green lights.  However rural areas rely on lots of voluntary responders – including lifeboat crews, mountain rescue teams and coastguard teams.  Team vehicles are often permitted to use blue lights and sirens.  Some volunteers will make themselves more visible by wearing emergency clothing en route, or by using sun-visor signs that should be visible in your rear-view mirror.

Often, they will be the first responder on scene for some time, particularly if the nearby ambulance is already busy.  Please do what you can to allow these essential services to make good progress through traffic – it could be you or your family who need their assistance the next time!

Where can I learn more?

To learn more about the role of Sandpiper BASICS responders, and of Community First Responders, watch the videos below.  Here are some links to the organisations mentioned above:

Finally, here’s two stories about where a fast local voluntary response made a significant difference…

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