Is it legal for police to break road rules?

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor

No man or woman is above the law, unless you happen to be an Australian police officer on the road. Across the country, policemen and women enjoy special on-road privileges and exemptions to rules not afforded to us regular citizens.

Speeding down the highway on your smartphone? No worries – as long as you’ve got the siren on. While that might land you in hot water with the boss, technically police are exempt from a vast majority of rules that govern our roads, under the right circumstances.

They can go through a red light, talk on their mobile phone when driving or even run an intersection provided they meet a broad criteria that gives them exemptions to sometimes breach the road regulations if need be.

Across the states, it largely comes down to a broad few qualifying factors:

  • The driver is taking reasonable care, and

  • It is reasonable that the provision should not apply, and

  • If the vehicle is a motor vehicle that is moving—the vehicle is displaying a blue or red flashing light or sounding an alarm.

Can police use their phone in the car?

A picture of a NSW police officer driving while on her mobile phone went viral on Facebook in May, with many people expressing anger at the double standard and general confusion over whether the officer was in the wrong.

A police woman seen talking on her mobile phone behind the wheel.
This photo was shared widely earlier this year. Source: Facebook

As police responded to the huge reaction, they confirmed she had done nothing against the law.

“Police officers may need to receive information about a job over their mobile phones for operational reasons, just as they might need to increase their speed to get to jobs without activating warning devices,” a police spokeswoman confirmed at the time, adding police exemptions still need to adhere to certain guidelines.

“That's not to say officers have an excuse to breach the rules in every circumstance – where possible, they will comply with all road rules.

“They are also rigorously checked against our Safe Driver Policy.”

It wasn’t the first time that has happened. In 2012, a photo circulated showing a Victorian officer using a mobile phone behind the wheel. The attention that photo received prompted a similar response.

Can police speed?

In certain circumstances, like a high-speed pursuit or other time sensitive emergencies, police in all states are allowed to exceed the speed limit.

“Under road rule regulation 305 police have exemptions to breach certain road rules, including the speed limit. These exemptions are absolutely necessary for police to be able to keep the community safe,” A Victoria Police spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia.

“For the exemption to apply police are required to act within a certain criteria and must always exercise reasonable care.”

Can police run a red light?

Similar to speeding, provided police are taking reasonable care, they are able to drive through red lights and intersections.

This also comes under NSW’s own regulation 305 and the stipulation about taking reasonable care obviously applies, and when doing so police (and other emergency vehicles) would normally have their siren and lights on to warn drivers.

A police car seen with sirens and flashing lights.
Police are broadly exempt from road rules under regulation 305.

The same general regulation applies broadly to police and emergency vehicles in all states, albeit with some slight differences in the ACT and Queensland. But in general, all police are afforded special exemptions if circumstances demand it.

“Although there is legislation which exempts police officers from traffic laws whilst in the execution of their duties, each instance must be assessed on its own merits and all reasonable care must be taken when an officer makes the decision to use the exemption,” a Queensland Police spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia.

“Police are subject to the same laws as other road users regarding driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” they added.

In 1999, the National Transport Commission (NTC) set about developing the model Australian Road Rules with the intent to improve consistency and harmonisation of road regulations as “a way of trying to ensure the same rules apply across borders”, NTC’s Head of Legislative Reform Jeremy Wolter told Yahoo.

The independent body was created to develop regulatory and operational reform for the country’s road rules and reviews the Australian Road Rules every two years.

“As long as the intent is the same and it achieves the same thing,” he said.

“The intent is for jurisdictions to approve the changes we recommend and to take those and implement them.”

What happens if something goes wrong?

In the event of an incident where police have breached road rules, events are investigated and action or prosecution is taken where appropriate, a NSW police spokesperson explained to Yahoo News Australia.

There is also compliance and review processes that take place “both during and after such events”, they said.

To help in this process, Highway Patrol vehicles have ‘in car footage’ that is reviewed upon an incident while police motorcycle riders have helmet cameras.

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