The Chase is a four-day Herald series looking at police pursuits and fleeing drivers. Since January 2008 there have been more than 30,000 pursuits, hundreds of crashes and 79 deaths. The series runs from Monday to Thursday ahead of a joint review of pursuits by police and the IPCA which will be released on Friday.

The first joint review of police pursuit policy, which aims to better understand the pursuit environment, identify issues and recognise good practise, is not "a rubber-stamping exercise", says the Minister of Police.

All pursuits notified to the Independent Police Conduct Authority last year, estimated to be 75, will be considered in the review undertaken alongside the police.

It comes as the number of fleeing driver incidents swells to above 4000 last year.

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While Minister of Police Stuart Nash was concerned by the rising number of fatals, calling them a tragedy that was "absolutely compounded" if innocent bystanders were killed, he said those cases were still rare.

Police signalled for about 3.5 million drivers to stop annually meaning those that fled equated to roughly 0.1 per cent in terms of driver behaviour, he said.

"The last thing police want to see is people killed on the roads – it doesn't matter what the circumstances," Nash said.

"They do abandon a number of pursuits when they think it is not in the best interest of the safety of the community or society in general."

Minister of Police Stuart Nash. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Minister of Police Stuart Nash. Photo / Mark Mitchell

But the minister backed the way police have been using their discretion.

Two-thirds of the Police Association members believe the status quo is striking the right balance between deterrence and public safety according to a recent report.

Former head of the Waitemata District serious crash unit sergeant Stu Kearns said there could be more restraint used in a bid to reduce the numbers of pursuits.

But he said it was an issue that would never be completely solved and police forces across the world were hard-tasked by those who worked to take advantage of the rules.

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"You will always get the argument too, from some critics of pursuits, that when the police officer identifies the driver or the license plate then they should back off but quite a few of these are stolen vehicles and you will never get the offender."

Kearns said with age and wisdom often came a very good argument that a stolen car was not worth putting lives in danger.

"Nobody likes their car being stolen but it is property crime, not a life threatening crime, and really does it justify endangering a whole raft of people for a stolen vehicle?

"I have witnessed the carnage and the grief [after a fatal crash] when I headed the serious crash unit.

"What the public sometimes forgets is that the police are not pursuing with the intention of that outcome."

If that outcome occurred it could have career-ending psychological impacts, he said.

Kearns said an issue to look at was the driver training provided to young police officers.

"At the end of the day I have been in the situation myself where you want to get the offender at all costs, but sometimes that cost is clouded when you need to consider the safety of public and any staff member that might be in the car with you."

Kearns said the driving training given to police officers joining the force was an area that needed improvement.

Research showed the fleeing drivers would still run minutes after the sirens stopped sounding and police abandoned the chase, he said.

They would continue "driving like an idiot" because the adrenaline was still pumping, they still believed they would be caught, he said.

The 2009 IPCA report noted research had shown due to the phenomenon commonly known as 'red-mist' officers could find it difficult to call off a pursuit once they had engaged as a state of excitement clouded their judgement.

"In addition, physiological factors such as the adrenalin rush associated with 'fight or
flight' situations may affect officers' judgement," the report noted.

NZ Automobile Association general manager of motoring affairs Mike Noon said he was concerned about the growing number of fleeing driver incidents.

With 2997 in 2015, 3323 in 2016, 3796 in 2017 the numbers were "going the wrong way".

An issue that needed to be looked at was the large number of stolen vehicles involved, he said.

Green Party police spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman said police should better utilise alternative means to pursuits, which she likened to using deadly force.

Green Party police spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman. Photo / Doug Sherring
Green Party police spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman. Photo / Doug Sherring

She said it was better to follow-up with people further down the line, than try to apprehend a fleeing driver who was driving dangerously.

"It's not the only way of stopping people," she said.

Public safety had to come first, she said, emphasising that in many instances these were just traffic violations.

Many fleeing teenagers would be scared of getting caught without a license, she said.

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft previously told the Herald there were reasons why young people are more at risk than others.

"Considerable brain development evidence shows that teenagers' pre-frontal brain cortex is not developed enough to allow them to objectively assess risks before and during pursuits.

"This makes them more likely to flee from police, even if they have only committed a minor traffic offence. This puts not only young drivers but all other road users at increased risk"

"To make matters worse, young people are extremely likely to have passengers in their vehicle when pursued."

In a 2010 internal police review it was noted that staff were expressing frustration regarding the lack of deterrence for drivers who flee from police.

"The same offenders continually come to police attention for failing to stop, many treating it like a game of cat and mouse that ultimately risks the lives of all road users," the report read.

Nash said while this could be looked at again, he did not believe it was a conversation that needed to happen now.

Road safety advocate Clive Matthew-Wilson said there would always be a need for police pursuits but they should be restricted to genuine emergencies.

"If, say, a child has been kidnapped, obviously the police need to take immediate action," he said.

"However, FBI studies have shown that it's often better for the police to pull back and let the offender think he's got away, then quietly move in later.

"This minimises the risk to the police, the public and the dickhead who's trying to outrun the police."

Pursuits - the facts:

• Since January 2008 there have been 30,950 police pursuits.

• The number of pursuits has increased steadily each year for the last decade.

• During those pursuits, 79 drivers and passengers were killed.

• Others were also killed including innocent road users.

• Police figures show that pursuits are most likely to happen between 10pm and 6am.

• Crashes are more likely at night.

• The majority of drivers are young males and many are driving stolen cars.

• In most cases the driver was killed and there were a significant number of crashes where multiple passengers also died.

Read more from The Chase:

To pursue or not to pursue, that is the question for police

Mother speaks after fatal pursuit - 'we visit her grave every day'

Fatal pursuit cop warned driver of 'killing your mates' 48 hours before crash

Wannabe heroes - why drivers flee police

Fleeing driver - 'I knew if I drove erratically they would stop chasing me'

Woman convicted after pursuit 'don't judge me'

Young offenders playing 'high speed cat-and-mouse' with police

Woman who survived pursuit crash that killed her three mates 'begged' driver to stop