Police push for harsher penalties as pursuits surge

Drivers fleeing police are showing no sign of slowing down, let alone stopping - and the Police Minister may be getting ready to take action over the issue.

New police data released yesterday showed more police pursuits in the first three months of this year compared to same period in the last eight years.

There were 322 fleeing driver incidents in January, followed by 254 in February and 302 in March, with the total of 807 above those recorded for all years since 2009.

For the whole of 2016 there were 3233 fleeing driver offences recorded; in 2015 there were 2997; in 2014 there were 2392 and in 2013, just 2308.

Police Minister Paula Bennett told Newsroom she has “recently asked police to provide me some advice on this issue”.

“I believe there are times when pursuing someone who flees from police is appropriate. Police have the difficult job of striking a balance between stopping a dangerous driver and making the situation more dangerous.”

Police Association president Chris Cahill told Newsroom proposed harsher penalties under the Land Transport Amendment Bill can't come soon enough.

He said in the past two months there had been five incidents reported to the association of fleeing drivers ramming police cars in efforts to escape.

“This follows another trend where they were driving the wrong way down the motorways, knowing the police would stop.

“It’s pretty scary and all these drivers don’t seem to the care and don’t seem to worry about the consequences.”

The Road Policing Driver Offence Data, which is tabled from January 2009 to March 2017, showed an upward trend of fleeing drivers despite a decline or stagnation in most other traffic offending.

The data showed speeding, not wearing seatbelts and red-light running all trending down or plateauing, with a slight increase in motorists caught using mobile phones while driving or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Fleeing driver crimes are also not decreasing despite new policing strategies and the highly-publicised carnage of the crashes - including the deaths of young people, and friends and family members being held accountable for those deaths.

Alarming evidence of the fleeing drivers - filming themselves speeding the wrong way down the motorway as sirens blare and the occupants of the car whoop and cheer; CCTV footage of them running cars off the road and photos and videos of high impact crashes - is abound.

National Road Policing Manager Steve Greally said the trend was a great concern to police.

“We are concerned at the recent increase in people choosing to flee police, particularly in the younger age bracket, and are continually working on reviewing our fleeing driver policy and approach to these events in an effort to make them as safe as they reasonably can be, while acknowledging they will always carry inherent risk.”

In 2016, more than 1800 police pursuits had to be called off over safety concerns and 585 resulted in crashes, said Greally.

All those spoken to by Newsroom supported the move towards harsher penalties for fleeing drivers.

Final submissions for the Land Transport Amendment Bill, which proposes to increase penalties not only for fleeing drivers but for those who refuse to identify fleeing drivers, close on June 1.

Cahill said harsher penalties were an important part of the solution, but would not work in isolation. A lot of those involved in the crashes were youth offenders who would not be dealt with under the law changes.

He said extending the hours of the police’s Eagle helicopter, announced as one of the measures under the National Government’s $503 million Safer Communities Investment Package, would help.

Effective education programs for youth were also required, as well as continued efforts to reduce general youth and criminal offending.

“It’s more than traffic offending, it is criminal offending. It is the same people who are doing the aggravated robberies of petrol stations.

“A lot of chases start after a robbery or something like that so it’s quite an ongoing problem with juvenile offending.”

Labour’s Police spokesman Stuart Nash said he also supported harsher penalties, but thought some creative problem solving was also required.

“It is a really big problem,” he said. “We are seeing more and more young people believing they can get away with it because they know that the police will stop the pursuit before too long.”

A possible solution, he said, was including driving training in the school curriculum so all young people would obtain their licence and not wish to jeopardise losing it.

“If driver training was compulsory in schools ... it could prevent all sorts of crimes because they possibly wouldn’t get fines and would be able to drive to work and all these other things that potentially they get locked out of without a licence and with a bad driving record.”

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