Drivers who flee from police patrols could face a jail term even if it is their first offence.

The prospect of routine imprisonment looms after 16 people died in police pursuits last year.

At the moment, a form of "three strikes" exists before prison terms can be imposed - but Police Minister Judith Collins is not ruling out imposing a possible jail term for drivers every time they flee police.

The Government and police have come under intense pressure after the 16 deaths.

Penalties for those fleeing police have already been toughened, including making it an aggravating factor at sentencing, vehicles being impounded for 28 days, and mandatory disqualification for repeat offences.

At present, drivers convicted for a third time of failing to stop lose their licence for a year and face a jail term of up to three months.

But police and the Ministry of Transport are looking at what else can be done, despite six reviews of pursuit policy in the past five years.

The Police Association is calling for all drivers who flee to face a possible jail term, not just after a third offence, as part of the package of measures to deter people from refusing to stop.

Asked if this might come about, Ms Collins said: "Let's wait and see what comes up [from the latest review]."

Police figures show that in 2009, one person died in a pursuit. The year before that there were seven deaths.

Police Association president Greg O'Connor said drivers who fled should face a jail term, but judges should also have to impose mandatory suspension of licence, regardless of whether the driver was a repeat offender.

"At the moment, the problem is that we're incentivising them to flee, and in doing so we're making the roads less safe.

"They know [the threshold for abandoning] exists in time and speed."

Judges can already impose fines of up to $10,000, but they usually impose levies of only a few hundred dollars.

"Not only do they not impose very high fines, when someone gets a high fine they end up having it remitted at some stage anyway," Mr O'Connor said.

A Herald investigation last month found that in most cases, the drivers were fleeing after committing minor rather than serious offences.

Police have a wide discretion in deciding whether to chase fleeing drivers, and this has been criticised as being out of step with other countries, where officers are restricted to chasing motorists for violent offences only.

But Ms Collins staunchly defended police policy.

"I get tired of commentators who sit in their ivory towers telling the police what they should do and who live in areas where they've never had to confront real crime.

"Anybody who is so moronic to think that someone fleeing police is not criminal activity needs their heads read. Do they think dangerous driving is not criminal activity?

"Police have had years of getting really abused for doing their job and, frankly, I think the public is behind the police and they're getting sick of the police taking a beating every time the police go and do their job.

"The public realise that police just can't stand by and let dangerous drivers take over the roads."

Police Commissioner Howard Broad said last month that most offenders fleeing police had criminal convictions.

"These are often people who may have something to hide from the police."

* A man is in hospital after crashing on Auckland's Southern Motorway during a high-speed police chase yesterday morning.

Driving a stolen vehicle, he fled from police at Herne Bay and made a return trip across the harbour bridge to Albany and back at up to 140 km/h before crashing near the Market Rd off-ramp.

He complained of chest pains and was taken to Auckland City Hospital.

Runaway drivers
2008: 2032 pursuits, 529 abandoned, 474 crashes, 7 fatalities.

2009: 2237 pursuits, 643 abandoned, 372 crashes, 1 fatality.

2010 (to Dec 15): 2113 pursuits, 785 abandoned, 338 crashes, 16 fatalities.