Society Magazine

Too Scared to Speed?

Posted on the 01 November 2012 by Minimumcover @minimumcover

I have just finished watching the ITV documentary on Emergency Services drivers and the issue of whether they should be more or less protected in respect of prosecution for driving offences – especially in respect of incidents where death or serious injury are caused.

Presented by Johnathan Maitland the tone was set immediately by him saying that the speeds used by Police drivers (120mph on a stretch of motorway in this case) were ‘scary’. He later suggested to Federation’s John Apter, referring to the pursuit of Louis Bibby by PC James Holden last year, that the very act of pursuing a driver who had failed to stop ‘encouraged [them] to take very dangerous risks’. This was hidden behind a ‘some people might say’ precursor which, in my view, failed to conceal his own personal support of this view.

Taking the cases presented by the program, segment by segment:

In respect of the fatal accident involving the fire service in Sheffield in 2008. If the facts stated in the program are accurate in that the appliance went through the red lights at a speed ‘far faster’ than the guideline speed of 5mph with its sirens switched off. On the face of it this appears to be a driver error with no real justification, however there are plainly going to be more elements to this than the simple facts presented in the program. Ultimately a person, Nicola Stacey, lost her life as a result, but there was never a prosecution as insufficient evidence existed to support one. A tragedy regardless of fault and one that the family of Nicola as well as the driver and crew of the fire appliance will never fully recover from.

Next, there was a short piece on PC James Holden. I am not going to go over again here, except to say that I was pleased to see that the program sought the opinion of Anne Martin who owned the van which was pursued by PC Holden. She clearly supported the Police in their decision to pursue and was very pleased with the actions of the officer in the driving seat.

Now the program sought the attitude of ‘Brake’ – A road safety charity dedicated to (as their tagline states) Stopping the Carnage. Their attitude was unexpectedly narrow-minded in respect of the subject that they were discussing. The point of view expressed by spokesperson, Ellen Booth, was very clear in that all emergency services drivers that are involved in an accident where there is a death or serious injury ‘should be prosecuted’. She implied that the families of those that were killed or seriously injured ‘deserve justice’. What she failed to consider is that, although there are some accidents where blame should fall at the feet of the responding service, sometimes the person killed or injured is a criminal attempting to avoid capture who chooses to take huge risks in order to escape, and sometimes the person killed or injured should was only involved in the accident due to their own poor judgment or other error which could not be foreseen by the emergency driver. Surely these three scenarios cannot be, as Ellen Booth suggests, dealt with by a one-rule-fits-all piece of legislation.

The figures given in the program state that there were 137 fatalities in respect of accidents involving Police vehicles in the last five years, and that 82 of those were as a result of pursuits. This leaves 55 fatalities (less than one a month on average – but obviously not taking into account multiple occupants in some incidents) as a result of non-pursuit incidents. This is clearly a high figure, but I do not believe it will ever be possible to cater for and negate every risk – there was also no indication of how many of these incidents were occurred during a response drive or were the fault of the non-police party. The total number of fatalities for this period was  11,457 – making the police fatalities less than 1% of the total number.

Assistant Chief Constable Andy Holt from South Yorkshire Police presented the ACPO position which came across well, stating that Police drivers should expect to be prosecuted when it is justified. He went on to say that proportionate driving, even if it would be considered dangerous under the current legal definition, should not be prosecuted, and that if Police drivers were prevented from doing their duty due to the current legislation, then the law should be changed.

The producers now wheeled out the predictable ‘expert’. Professor Peter Waddington stated that pursuits consistently provided the highest percentage of ‘deaths following police contact’. This is a term used to describe any person who dies within after some involvement with Police that may be linked to the death. His suggested method for cutting this number is to ban pursuits altogether. This is a completely preposterous suggestion which would lead to immediate anarchy on our roads with criminals believing that they simply had to run from the Police to get away with their crimes. The roads would be filled with every kind of offender, simply going about their business at high-speed in the knowledge that we could only catch them if they parked up and surrendered or ran out of fuel.
Should this wish of his come true and pursuit deaths disappeared due to them becoming banned, I believe the next highest contributor to the death following Police contact figures is arrest and custody. Perhaps he would have us let everybody go to reduce that figure too?

The final substantive story covered the incident involving ex-PC David Lynch from BTP which injured Pepe Belmonte. David was very brave to put his neck on the line and his face on camera holding his hands up to making an error which cost Belmonte his health and Lynch his job. This, and again I can only go on the facts as presented in the program and the words of Lynch himself, appeared to be a genuine case of justifiable prosecution. The speed at which the van was being driven (68mph in a 30mph limit) and the road on which that driving occurred suggest a catastrophic failure in assessment of risk and justification – especially when the officer was reported to be responding to a simple fare evader rather than a serious or life threatening incident.

There is nothing I can say in defence of this driver other than to acknowledge his courage for putting his hands up. There may be more that I do not know, but this appears to be the kind of incident that should still receive the attention of the courts should there be a change in the current laws. What I will say though is that the comments of Pepe suggesting that we might ‘live in a society where the emergency services are given carte blanche to drive how they want’ are grossly inaccurate and completely misrepresent the issue being discussed.

Emergency Services drivers do not want or expect or believe they have a get out of jail free card to do what they want behind the wheel. They are, almost without exception, well-trained and very competent at their role. They do not simply take risks without any consideration to the consequences. Remember, they all see the result of poor or dangerous driving on our roads every day. I believe the law should be changed to take into consideration that training and experience. I believe that prosecution should only occur when it is justifiable, and that the actions of a driver who chooses to run from Police should not be considered the responsibility of the Police driver who then decides to pursue them.

What do you think?

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