How soon do you need to pull over after seeing those flashing blue lights behind you?

State law says you must stop immediately when being pulled over by a law enforcement officer or approached by an emergency vehicle.
State law says you must stop immediately when being pulled over by a law enforcement officer or approached by an emergency vehicle. Staff file, 2012

Q: What does the law say about how soon you need to get to the side of the road when a police officer pulls you over?

A: Short answer: You should pull over immediately.

And, yes, you can be cited for not pulling over quickly enough.

This question came indirectly from Carmen, who called to ask about another issue that we’ll get to in a later Q&A.

As she was about to hang up, Carmen mentioned something she said happened to a friend of hers, and it seemed like something a lot of people might wonder about.

She said her friend was once pulled over, and the officer wrote her an additional citation because she didn’t stop by the side of the road quickly enough.

Carmen wanted to know what was up with that.

In Washington, state law says when an emergency vehicle is approaching you with its lights and sirens:

“The driver of every other vehicle shall yield the right-of-way and shall immediately drive to a position parallel to, and as close as possible to, the right-hand edge or curb of the roadway clear of any intersection and shall stop and remain in such position until the authorized emergency vehicle has passed, except when otherwise directed by a police officer.”

The law doesn’t give you a specific distance or time in which you must stop after the officer signals for you to pull over, but you should do it right away, said Sgt. James Prouty with the Washington State Patrol.

“What we want is, as soon as you see those lights, to signal and safely pull over to the right shoulder,” Prouty said.

There’s a reason for that: By the time an officer has indicated he or she is going to pull you over, you’re most likely in an area where it’s safe to do so, Prouty said.

“There is an RCW (state law) that requires you to yield to emergency vehicles, so if we’re behind them for a length of time, and they’re not yielding or not moving over, then they can receive a citation,” he said. “When we activate our lights to stop someone, we’ve found an area that’s safe and that will give us a safe location for them to pull over, and if they don’t pull over, then we could end up in area that isn’t safe, like on a bridge or something like that.”

Prouty also said you should never pull over onto the left shoulder, even if you’ve been pulled over while driving in the farthest left lane.

“We want them to pull over to the right shoulder unless there is some emergent circumstances or something where they can’t,” he said. “Usually the far left lane is the lane where vehicles are traveling at the fastest speeds … and oftentimes there is no shoulder there for them to pull off to, so if they pull over there, they can be blocking the lane.

“We don’t want that — we want people to be safe.”

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud