The BC Motor Vehicle Act provides the RCMP and other drivers of ‘emergency vehicles‘ the right to speed and run red lights and stop signs. This right, however, is not absolute and cannot be exercised without care to other motorists. If an emergency vehicle operator is careless in the exercise of their emergency powers they can be liable for a resulting collision. Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court, Vancouver Registry, demonstrating such a result.
In today’s case (Haczewski v. British Columbia) the Plaintiff was killed in a 2007 motor vehicle collision. His vehicle was struck in an intersection. He entered on a green light. At the same time an RCMP vehicle was approaching with “her emergency lights and siren” on. She entered against the red light at high speed and the collision occurred.
At trial the Defendant agreed she was careless and contributed to the collision but argued the Plaintiff was also partly to blame. Mr. Justice Grauer rejected this argument and found the Defendant fully at fault. In doing so the Court provided the following reasons:
 No statute need be cited for the general proposition that a vehicle entering a controlled intersection with a green light has the right-of-way over vehicles facing the red light. But is this still the case when the vehicle with the red light is a police car responding to an emergency with its lights flashing and siren sounding? The answer is: it depends.
 The Motor Vehicle Act provides certain privileges to emergency vehicles, including the limited right to proceed through a red light without stopping:…
 The use of those privileges is governed by the Motor Vehicle Act Emergency Vehicle Driving Regulation, B.C. Reg. 133/98…
 Thus the statutory privileges granted by the Motor Vehicle Act’s section 122 exemption are subject always to balancing the exigencies of the emergency with the risk of harm arising from the operation of the vehicle. In particular, the driver of any emergency vehicle exercising those privileges who approaches or enters an intersection must slow to a speed consistent with reasonable care.
 The Motor Vehicle Act deals further with right-of-way in section 177:
177 On the immediate approach of an emergency vehicle giving an audible signal by a bell, siren or exhaust whistle, and showing a visible flashing red light, except when otherwise directed by a peace officer, a driver must yield the right of way, and immediately drive to a position parallel to and as close as possible to the nearest edge or curb of the roadway, clear of an intersection, and stop and remain in that position until the emergency vehicle has passed…
 An article included as an appendix to the manual, entitled Rules of the Road: Some Perspectives on Emergency Driving, contained this recommendation:
8. Come to a complete stop at all controlled intersections (e.g. red lights, stop signs) where you would not have the right-of-way without warning equipment.
Most accidents of any kind, but especially those involving emergency vehicles on emergency calls, occur at intersections. The practice of stopping at intersections has not appreciably hurt my agency’s response times, although it has caused some shortening of brake life. But faithful adherence to it has resulted in countless instances in which vehicles would otherwise have been broadsided by motorists who either insisted on their right-of-way or did not perceive the warning equipment.
 As a result of this accident, this recommendation has, as I understand it, now become RCMP policy. At the time of the accident, the policy for an officer approaching a controlled intersection was to slow sufficiently, and to stop if necessary, in order to ensure that it was safe to proceed through the intersection, consistent with section 6 of the Regulation…
 On all of the evidence, I have no difficulty in concluding that Constable Kostiuk failed to exercise the degree of care required of a reasonable police officer, acting reasonably and within the statutory powers imposed upon her, in the circumstances she faced that night (see Doern v. Philips Estate (1994), 2 B.C.L.R. (3d) 349 (S.C.) at para. 69, aff’d (1997), 43 B.C.L.R. (3d) 53 (C.A.)).
 As she headed up Kingsway in response to what she reasonably believed to be an emergency, Constable Kostiuk significantly exceeded the speed limit. On a quiet night with little traffic, that was justified. But circumstances changed when she approached the intersection with Royal Oak, a main street, facing a red light. She was not familiar with the intersection, and visibility was limited. She ought not to have entered it against the red light without first taking adequate steps to ensure that she could do so safely. She failed to do so. Reasonable care required her to slow right down before proceeding into that intersection, in order to ensure that it was in fact clear, and that she could enter it without risk of harm to the public. Instead, she accelerated into the intersection from what was already a high speed. In those circumstances, it was impossible for her to have any confidence that she could proceed safely, and the collision was the result. Such action was in no way justified by the exigencies of the emergency to which she was reacting.
In addition to the above, this decison is also worth reviewing for the application of the ‘abuse of process’ doctrine following a motor vehicle act conviction.
In today’s case the RCMP officer was charged criminally with dangerous driving causing death. She eventually plead guilty to careless driving under the motor vehicle act. The Plaintiff argued it was an abuse of process to dispute civil liability in these circumstances. Mr. Justice Grauer disagreed and provided reasons at paragraphs 154-160 setting out his view of why a guilty plea to careless driving should not be an absolute barrier to subsequently denying civil liability. It is worth noting there is some inconsistency in this area of the law.