Number of fleeing driver deaths, crashes rose after police abandoned non-pursuit policy

Police are standing by their fleeing driver policy, despite a rise in crashes and deaths in the year since the guidelines changed. 

Commissioner Andrew Coster rung in the changes in May 2023 allowing officers to chase more offenders. The decision came three years after they effectively chose to stop pursuits, for public safety reasons in 2020. 

The softened approach was thought to be unpopular with those on the front-line and one expert said it could've been encouraging dangerous driving as offenders knew Police wouldn't engage in dangerous driving. 

However, the new approach has resulted in an increase in deaths and crashes – highlighting the need to strike the right balance. 

In announcing the decision to revert to pursuing, Commissioner Coster said there had been a significant increase in fleeing driver events and equally a significant decrease in offenders identified in the past three years. 

"The safety of our officers, the fleeing driver and other occupants, and the public is of the utmost importance. Although equally significant is the need to hold offenders to account for their actions," Coster said. 

"The amendments to the fleeing driver policy bring Police back to a more balanced position in these volatile, unpredictable, and high-risk events."

In the year following the announcement, deaths and crashes from fleeing driving incidents returned to pre-change levels – leaving some to question whether the right decision had been made. 

In 2018, two years before the policy change, there were 617 crashes as a result of drivers fleeing – and 12 deaths.

In 2019, crashes rose to 656 but deaths dropped to just eight.  

Between 2020 and 2022, there were 2 or 3 deaths each year and between 400 and 600 crashes a year.  

The policy changed in May 2023, and for the entire year – there were 676 crashes and nine deaths. 

Number of fleeing driver deaths, crashes rose after police abandoned non-pursuit policy
Number of fleeing driver deaths, crashes rose after police abandoned non-pursuit policy

University of Canterbury School of Psychology Senior Lecturer Jacinta Cording has researched the psychology of fleeing drivers and spoken with some who have run from Police. 

She raised concerns with Newshub when Police changed the policy. Twelve months on she says she's not surprised by what has happened. 

"At the time I was concerned that the change in policy would lead to more dangerous driving on behalf of the person fleeing, and lead to more crashes and potential deaths," Cording said.

"The sudden uptick in deaths from 2022 to 2023 certainly aligns with what might have been expected".

Police say they're never comfortable with any death on the road, no matter the circumstances. 

A spokesperson acknowledged the swing, in a statement saying the data shows there was a decrease in number of fleeing driver events when the revised policy came into effect, and they had apprehended more offenders. 

"The revised policy has had a positive impact and achieved better balance but we accept there is no perfect solution," a spokesperson said.  

They say their message has always been clear, pull over when signalled to do so and remain stopped until you've been permitted to leave. 

"Whilst a majority of drivers adhere to this instruction, there is a small number who take matters into their own hands by attempting to flee Police, leading to devastating results," the spokesperson said.

"These unfortunate instances can be avoided when drivers adhere to Police instructions when signalled to stop, it's not worth the risk to themselves, vehicle occupants, or others on the roads."

Police urged caution in interpreting the data – given the small data set of just one year post-policy change. 

Over the past decade, fleeing driver incidents have increased every year and since 2020 they have increased by more than 100 per cent. 

A new reporting system for fleeing drivers has made it easier for staff to record events and information. This may be contributing to the increase in occurrences.

Police had seen a downward trajectory in fleeing driver pursuits since the policy change in 2020, however in the last quarter of 2023 there was a slight increase.

Number of fleeing driver deaths, crashes rose after police abandoned non-pursuit policy

"This is why it is important to have multiple years of data, to enable us to see real, longer-term trends and understand impacts," the spokesperson said.  

"It's too soon to understand if what happened in 2023 will happen again, and why". 

Cording also cautioned comparing the pre-2020 data, and the 2023 data to the years in the middle. 

She said Covid-lockdowns and less people on the roads would have had an impact. 

During the years of the softened-approach – Cording said some young people believed there were certain activities that would get the chase abandoned.

"Things like driving on the wrong side of the road for instance, and that [the fleeing driver] would deliberately do that to get chase called off."

Police say they know offenders are more brazen and taking more risks in their driving behaviour. 

Changes were needed to the policy to apprehend them in safest possible manner. 

"The one thing that will always remain at the forefront of this policy is an acknowledgement of risk, and that safety must always come first." 

Cording said she wants Police to be certain there are no other options before pursuing. 

"Part of their public safety is also making sure that people aren't dying in Police chases," she said, "I'm sure that's not the outcome they want but it needs to be thought about if the new policy or the reinstatement of police chases is achieving what we want it to". 

She said some of the young people spoken to for the research said they wouldn't flee if they knew the Police Eagle Helicopter was overhead. 

"It comes back to, are there other ways that these people could be apprehended that doesn't involve such a dangerous means of apprehension," Cording said, "they cause dangers not just to the drivers, but to the passengers and to the police officers and the public."

"Are those pursuits ultimately leading to those communities being safer than they would if you used other investigative means".

Of the nine deaths in 2023, Police say only one occurred while they were actively pursuing the vehicle. 

"In one, Police had signalled the driver stop but realised they weren't going to stop so didn't pursue, in another Police pursued then abandoned, and in six events staff never pursued the fleeing driver."

Police acknowledged that none of the explanations would be comfort for the families and friends of those that died, or were seriously injured, in a vehicle fleeing Police.  

A year on, Police say there is no "formal review" in place, however they are constantly evaluating their procedures. 

"One year is not long enough to see trends, and trends will change with driver behaviour", the spokesperson said, "we monitor events over the next years".

Cording said the original softened approach was "unpopular" with Police officers. She isn't expecting any major changes soon, which means there will likely be more crashes and deaths.

Police Minister Mark Mitchell said he hadn't spoken with Commissioner Andrew Coster about the fleeing driver settings. However, the minister is happy with the current approach. 

"Ideally, there would be zero deaths and injuries from pursuits," the minister said in a written response, "the reality is that Police need to be enabled to their job. As part of that, we trust that they will make the best possible decision when assessing the risk of pursuit." 

"I am confident Police Officers will always put public safety first."

A Fleeing Driver Assurance Forum meets quarterly to discuss practice. Police say this forum would be vital to shaping any improvements or recommendations to Police's fleeing driver policy. 

A Police Operational Advisory Group also meets monthly to discuss issues.