When it suits them, politicians are quick to say they cannot interfere in police operations. But no such qualms were evident in November when Police Minister Michael Woodhouse helped to launch the "Reach the Beach" road safety campaign. There was no hint of keeping his distance as he enthused about the police's stricter approach. This was to prove embarrassing when the Christmas-New Year road toll was more than double that of the previous year. Yet rather than observe the lesson of this episode, Mr Woodhouse has elected to involve himself in police matters in a deeper and even more untenable manner.
He has asked them to review the public messages that underpinned the campaign, suggesting that the speed enforcement message had confused the public. Further, he says that he always feared this outcome. But if he had detected a potential problem, that was not apparent at the launch. Then, he noted that a reduced tolerance for speeding had been effective over holiday weekends, and said he was "sure the police will take a sensible approach to enforcement".
There were few grounds for confusion at the launch. The police said there would be no tolerance for drivers exceeding the speed limit, but that officers could use their discretion if they pulled over a driver who was only slightly over that limit. In effect, they were saying that they would continue to focus on those drivers who were putting others at risk by going much faster than the flow of traffic, and that they wanted to make a serious statement to such dangerous speedsters.
The Christmas-New Year road toll was unusual in that the lower tolerance of speeding did not lead to a reduced number of serious accidents. But many of these had nothing to do with speed. Equally, it is always dangerous to dismiss a strategy on the basis of one failure when the long-term trend is one of success. Most likely, the toll was a blip, and the police have every reason to persevere with the approach until further evidence is available.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
They will not get that chance. Mr Woodhouse's request for a review was accompanied by a note that he would be "taking a close interest in ensuring the message about road safety is clear and unambiguous". And while tipping his hat to zero tolerance for bad driving, he makes it clear that he wants discretion, as articulated in the 4km/h tolerance used in fixed speed cameras over the Christmas-New Year period. In all likelihood, the review will conclude this level of tolerance should be the benchmark.
So much for the police being able to focus on their operational responsibilities without political interference and pressure. There are times when politicians can justifiably comment on police matters. Crime statistics, for example, are a legitimate area of interest. But not policies such as that underpinning the "Reach the Beach" campaign. It is not that difficult to understand, and would become crystal clear in time. Just as it allows individual officers to use their discretion, so Mr Woodhouse should not be compromising the freedom of the police to do their job.