When police turn their lights and sirens on, and direct a driver to pull over, this is not an optional exercise. You must obey. No matter how drunk, drugged, scared or confused a driver is, there is never an excuse not to pull over. Drivers must be responsible for their actions.
However the driver is not the only person making decisions in this situation. On one hand you have an agitated and possibly intoxicated driver, and on the other the highly professional and competent members of the NSW Police Force. In these circumstances we need police to act rationally, to be guided by world’s best practice, and to have as priority protecting people from harm.
So yes, the driver is responsible for obeying the law. The police are responsible for making the right call, and only engaging in a high speed pursuit where the arrest of the driver is essential to prevent danger to other people.
In the last decade, police forces around the world have reformed their pursuits policies to greatly reduce the number of dangerous high speed police chase. Dramatically reformed policies have been implemented in the US and UK, as well as in Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and, just last week, the ACT. Despite an April 2014 Coroner’s recommendation for similar reforms in NSW, nothing has changed here.
Recently in NSW, three women were killed in a crash following a pursuit. In another incident, a man was in critical condition following a pursuit that was called off for ‘safety reasons’ moments before his car crashed and was engulfed by flames. While police are undertaking reviews of these chases, they have already signalled they will not make changes to their policy.
In the last few years around 50 people a year – drivers, bystanders, passengers and police – have been injured in the course of police pursuits. Tragically there have also been people killed. Sometimes the person killed is the driver of a fleeing car, sometimes passengers, and sometimes police, other motorists or pedestrians.
The offences for which pursuits start are more often than not traffic offences. Since 2012 NSW police have average almost 1600 high speed pursuits a year, that’s more than 300 every week. While the raw numbers are worryingly high, what is worse is that around 60% of chases are in response to traffic offences – including not stopping at stop signs, failing to obey traffic lights and a range of speeding offences.
Recognising the inherent dangers of police pursuits, a rational policy would reserve them for those circumstances where police literally have no other viable options. In many circumstances alternative options exist. In the great majority of cases where a vehicle fails to stop the police are well aware of the driver’s identity through registration details and police in-car camera images. In a small number of cases the driver’s identity may not be immediately known, but competent policing can discover this information.
This is not a simple problem, but neither is it a novel one. With so many other police forces able to greatly reduce pursuits and still arrest offending drivers, we should be expecting far better from the NSW Police than the dangerous approach of 30 high speed chases a week. Of course drivers should be responsible and stop when called upon. However when they don’t, that’s when we have a legitimate expectation that any police pursuit will not aggravate an already dangerous situation. The safety of all road users it at stake, and our collective safety must be the highest priority of our police.