The latest road fatality caused by a driver fleeing police is one that will not quickly fade in the public memory. Early on Sunday Carmen Marie Yanko, 53, was travelling through the town of Hope toward Nelson, where she had a stall at the Sunday market, when she was killed. A driver trying to outrun a police chase passed a truck on the wrong side of the road and slammed into her, killing himself and a passenger as well as the innocent woman.
Whatever crime had given rise to the police pursuit, it was not worth the life of this woman, or even the risk to her life. But does that mean police should never pursue a car that has failed to stop for them? That would be the effect of an outright ban which the Automobile Association urges the police to consider. The AA points to Queensland where state police are not allowed to chase a vehicle unless the driver was involved in murder or posed an imminent threat to someone's life.
New Zealand police are allowed to use their judgment when a driver fails to stop and tries to elude them. They are supposed to give up the chase if it becomes dangerous. It is not hard to imagine why the Nelson officers continued the chase on Sunday morning. It was 5.40am, still dark but probably almost no traffic about. To the police the situation would not have seemed unduly dangerous until the moment the car went on to the wrong side of the road to speed past the truck. Even then, the pursuer might have thought the risk of meeting an oncoming vehicle very low at the hour of the morning.
How wrong that view turned out to be, which illustrates the dangers of leaving these decisions to the discretion of those involved. The discretion no longer lies entirely with officers in pursuit, it has been given to controllers in the communications room to minimise the adrenaline factor. But controllers will depend on information provided by an officer in the car.
No life is worth risking if it could be avoided, yet police do need the right to give chase when circumstances allow them to do so reasonably safely. The Independent Police Conduct Authority has been looking for a solution to this conundrum for at least two years. Police in many other countries are facing the same dilemma. The New Zealand Police Association says all solutions should on the table for consideration, including a complete ban on pursuits, but it does not think new rules should be set in response to tragic events.
The Prime Minister has been advised there more than three million police stops each year and about 300 result in a pursuit. That would suggest only one in 10,000 offenders would escape if pursuits were stopped altogether. But of course a policy of no pursuit under any conditions would likely see many more drivers failing to stop.
In the year to last September pursuits resulted in 552 crashes and seven deaths. A further six people have died from pursuits in the past six months, three of them last Sunday. The blame always lies with those who flee but too often innocent people are paying the price. There must be smarter ways for police to stop a car.