Aug 31

Identifying Police Cars and Emergency Vehicle Laws

Posted on August 31, 2023 at 4:16 PM by Deputy Aaron Scheller

Safety Speak Blog Entry Header - Emergency Vehicles

I have a soft spot for vintage patrol cars … something about their clean and classic look. I close my eyes now and conjure up the image of a faded photograph featuring a black and white four-door sedan with a single light on top. Of course, your mental image of a patrol car might be different if you grew up outside of California. The paint on police vehicles in New York, for instance, used to be green and white and later powder blue. When it comes to squad cars, the paint color and other identifiers will differ from one jurisdiction to another. In this month’s blog I discuss what is required by law of all police cars, and provide a refresher on California's traffic laws for emergency vehicles.

Paint Color/Badges/Titles

As you may have guessed, there is no legal requirement when it comes to paint color. Most vehicle colors, just like the shape of badges, come from the tradition of the specific policing agency. The Sheriff’s Department’s badge is a six-point star, and that of the Los Angeles Police Department is a shield. Despite their different look, both are badges, and both are official. The same goes for titles – law enforcement officers who work for sheriff’s departments are called “deputies”, and those who work for police departments have the title of “officers” – we do the same job, just for different agencies and in different jurisdictions.

Emergency Vehicle Lighting

When it comes to the lighting system on emergency vehicles, Section 25252 of the California Vehicle Code requires them to be equipped with one steady red light that is visible from 1000 feet.

 Additionally, authorized emergency vehicles may also display revolving, flashing, or steady red warning lights to the front, sides or rear of the vehicles. This is because of the advancement of emergency vehicles (police, fire, and ambulance) and the desire to improve safety conditions when an emergency responder is responding to call or engaged in rescue operations.

 There is one difference when it comes to the color of the light bars on emergency vehicles – those on law enforcement vehicles are red and blue, while the light bars on fire and ambulance vehicles are only red and white. Also, unmarked patrol cars – commonly referred to as undercover cop cars – only need to activate a red light that can be seen from 1000 feet when conducting traffic stops.

Service Call Response Codes

In the United States, law enforcement agencies use response codes to describe the priority and response assigned to calls for service. The tiers can vary from one agency to another, but almost always Code 3 is designated across the board to responses of an emergency nature – it is the only tier that requires the activation of both lights and sirens. Occasionally, emergency responders on their way to a call may briefly turn on their siren if necessary to make traffic yield or when going through a busy intersection.

If You Are Driving and an Emergency Vehicle Approaches with Lights and Siren Activated …

It goes without saying that time is of the essence during an emergency, and mere seconds can mean the difference between life and death for those at the scene of the emergency requiring medical care or assistance.

 If you are driving and you see or hear the lights or sirens of an emergency vehicle, you are required by law (CVC 21806) to yield the right-of-way by slowing down and, when safe to do so, moving to the right side of the road and coming to a complete stop until the emergency vehicle(s) have passed.

If you cannot move to the right because of another vehicle or an obstacle, come to a stop as close to the right as possible. You can resume your drive once the emergency vehicle(s) have passed and are at least 300 feet ahead of you.

An exception …

The only time it is not necessary to yield to emergency vehicles is if there is a raised median separating the roadway, and you are traveling in the opposite direction. In this situation, you are not required to pull over and stop.

When Driving Past an Emergency Vehicle or Tow truck Parked with Lights Flashing …

 In closing, I want to take a moment to go over a law a lot of drivers are not very familiar with and it is the “Move Over, Slow Down” law that requires drivers to change lanes or slow down when approaching an emergency vehicle with lights flashing parked on or to the side of a roadway. 

 Every state in the United States has a version of the “Move Over, Slow Down” law. In California, the law became official on January 1, 2007. Since then, it has undergone several amendments. For instance, in January 1, 2021 the vehicles protected by this law were expanded to include tow trucks and Caltrans vehicles that are displaying flashing lights.

 To learn more about the “Move Over, Slow Down” law, check out the leaflet linked at the end of this blog entry.

 As always, thank you for reading my Safety Speak blog – I hope you forward it your family and friends, or better yet invite them to subscribe to the blog at so that they are notified by email or text as soon as it goes live on the City’s website.

PDF Copy of the Leaflet

What To Do If You See An Emergency Vehicle