PM 'enjoyed' convoy ride

By Jarrod Booker

Prime Minister Helen Clark was aware of what was happening around her and appeared to be enjoying the ride in a motorcade travelling up to 172 km/h, a court has heard.

The Timaru District Court yesterday heard Constable Simon Vincent describe seeing Helen Clark looking ahead from the car behind him as he drove a police Ford Explorer vehicle leading the motorcade.

Mr Vincent, along with four other police officers and a civilian driver, are on trial on driving charges arising from the motorcade between Waimate, South Canterbury, and Christchurch on July l7 last year.

It is alleged the motorcade travelled at high speed to get Helen Clark to a flight from Christchurch to Wellington in time for a Bledisloe Cup rugby test match after a flight from Timaru was cancelled.

In a police video interview played to the court, Mr Vincent recalled looking back to check seeing Helen Clark leaning towards the centre of the back seat in the Crown car and looking towards him.

"She was smiling and appeared to be enjoying the ride is how I would put it," Mr Vincent said.

"She would have been most definitely aware of what was going on both in front of her and around her. I cannot recall seeing her engrossed in any paperwork or anything like that."

Helen Clark has previously stated to media she was too busy working in the car to take notice of the driving by the motorcade.

Mr Vincent told the court his speedometer got as high as 180km/h during the trip from Washdyke, near Timaru, to Christchurch.

He said he was told by a police officer in the rear car of the motorcade to bring his speed up when it was about 120 to 130 km/h.

Mr Vincent said he believed the speed was a safety measure arising from a threat made against Helen Clark and he had no idea she was trying to reach a formal engagement.

Cabinet Minister Jim Sutton, who was travelling in the Crown car with Helen Clark during the motorcade, told the court he assumed police had the right to exceed the speed limit in the course of their duties.

"I know we were travelling faster than I would drive, but then I don't have a close police escort when I drive. I never felt anyone was put in danger."

The vehicles in the motorcade were travelling closer together than vehicles normally would, but only because it was an escort situation.

Asked by defence lawyer Norm Scott if he recalled travelling at 140km/h in a 50km/h zone at Temuka, Mr Sutton answered: "If we had been travelling at 140km/h in a built-up area I would have noticed it, I am sure."

He could not recall several incidents on the journey where motorists had complained of dangerous driving by the motorcade.

Asked by prosecutor Phil Shamy if he knew of any direction by Helen Clark that the flight from Christchurch had to be reached, Mr Sutton said he did not.

"The alternative arrangements had been made I believe before any of us were advised of the travel plans."

Asked by Judge John Strettell if Helen Clark could have asked for her flight from Christchurch to be held up if she was late, Mr Sutton said she could have tried but might not be successful.

The case continues next week.

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