When the IPCA/Police review into fleeing drivers was released on March 15, it was, understandably, overshadowed by the shattering events at the two mosques in Christchurch that same day.
With Police and public focus elsewhere for some time, discussion of the comprehensive report, Fleeing Drivers in New Zealand, was limited, although the problem certainly hasn’t gone away.
The review – the sixth to have been done since 2003 – offered no solutions to the problem of drivers who deliberately try to evade police, but it did make an eight-point action plan of recommendations for Police (see “Recommendations” below).
It also dispelled several urban myths about those drivers. The range of cases investigated for the review showed that, contrary to popular perception, not all drivers who flee are juveniles in stolen cars. Although it was acknowledged that events involving young drivers are problematic.
In fact, the median age of fleeing drivers is between 24 and 26. They are overwhelmingly male and 50-68 per cent are active or serious and persistent criminal offenders with between 17 and 27 criminal convictions each.
More than half have previously been in the prison and more than 65 per cent were not licensed or were disqualified or suspended from driving.
Police stop about 2.5 million vehicles a year, an average of nearly 7000 each day, and those who refuse to stop account for 0.15 per cent of those drivers, but that small percentage can cause terrible consequences for themselves, their passengers, families, innocent bystanders and police who have to deal with the aftermath.
The review found that Police staff generally manage fleeing driver events well, but also identified areas where improvement is needed.
These include providing improved “cognitive-based training”, assessment of risk, better communication between frontline staff and the comms centres, changes to the way events are recorded and investigated, and the need for research to better understand why some drivers flee.
Police is now working on an action plan based on the review recommendations.
Assistant Commissioner Sandra Venables says a steering group has been set up and project managers have been assigned to all work streams, with the first quarterly report expected in August.
Ms Venables said TENR – the threat-exposure-necessity-response risk assessment tool – was the most important aspect of Police’s fleeing driver policy and there was room for improvement in how staff applied it.
Police has already begun work on commissioning research into the motivations of young people, people with mental health needs and those impaired by drugs and alcohol. “If we can understand what motivates them to flee, we can work with our partner agencies to prevent the behaviour in the first place,” she said.
She acknowledged the complexities of the issues and stressed that safety remained at the forefront of decisions around fleeing driver events.
The Police Association’s focus is also firmly on the health and safety of members who deal first-hand with these incidents.
Association President Chris Cahill says officers must be provided with proper training and support to meet the challenges of making split-second decisions under pressure.
“Officers are simultaneously focusing on their own driving, the driving of the fleeing driver, the presence of other drivers, the road and surrounding conditions, communicating with comms and listening to their directives, all while constantly assessing TENR.”
Further training and initiatives were needed to help officers be risk-averse as a natural default position.
The association supports the call for research into driver behaviour and motivation.
The review touched on the idea of a “no pursuit” policy for young drivers, but concluded that there would be “significant impracticalities”, such as identifying a driver’s age in a vehicle travelling at speed. And, it said, such a policy would not necessarily minimise the risks to young passengers if the driver was, or appeared to be, older.
Offender age and passenger age are already risk factors that staff must consider during TENR.
The review concluded that if the existing Police policy was “appropriately understood and properly applied [it] can provide the necessary balance between public safety and public protection by the apprehension of offenders”.
IPCA chair Judge Colin Doherty said the key was the “operational application of the policy”. He added that a change to focusing on investigation and making fleeing driver events part of mainstream policing, rather than standalone incidents, “should lead to identifying more fleeing drivers and holding them to account”.
So, the ball is back in the Police court now.
“We have work to do and we are committed to doing it,” Ms Venables said.
The IPCA's eight "high-level" recommendations to Police
- Police will review the Police Professional Driver Programme (PPDP), including current driver classification systems, to identify opportunities for improving staff understanding and application of TENR during fleeing driver events.
High level action: Review PPDP to ensure it is fit for purpose for enabling staff to effectively manage fleeing driver events.
- Police will improve the skills, knowledge, and experience of all staff involved in fleeing driver events, through different learning channels, to enable robust decision-making and support the effective management of events.
High level action: Enhance the quality and quantity of training to improve staff management of fleeing driver events.
- Police will review the Fleeing Driver policy against the findings of the Review and make any necessary adjustments to the policy and standard operating procedures to ensure that they remain fit for purpose and support the effective management of fleeing driver events.
High level action: Ensure the policy is fit for purpose in light of the Review’s findings.
- Police will investigate allowing units to carry out a non-compliant vehicle stop on offending vehicles that have been successfully spiked and are travelling at low speeds, to mitigate risks and improve the safe resolution of fleeing driver events.
High level action: Investigate introduction of limited non-compliant vehicle stops.
- Police will strengthen the accountability mechanisms of fleeing driver events, including improvements to post-event follow-up, and district review and national oversight processes.
High level action: Strengthen oversight of fleeing driver events. Improve post-event accountability processes.
- Police will review the Air Support Unit’s (Eagle) involvement in the management of fleeing driver events and clarify the role that they play if necessary.
High level action: Review role of Air Support Unit during fleeing driver events.
- Police will explore ways of improving Communication Centre’s access to real-time information, including through the potential adoption of new technology, in partnership with our sector partners.
High level action: Identify and explore opportunities to use technology to enhance the management of fleeing driver events.
- Police will commission further research and analysis of fleeing drivers to improve our understanding of drivers’ motivations for fleeing, including a focus on young people and alcohol/drug impaired drivers.
High level action: Improve understanding of fleeing driver offenders.