COMMENT:

Six people have died in Christchurch crashes in the past two months trying to flee police.

The grim total includes the three teenagers killed when their stolen car erupted in flames after it hit a tree at speed on Sunday night. Two police officers on the scene were powerless to save the boys and were affected by smoke.

The terrible scene will no doubt stay with them for some time, just as it will cause heartache for the families of the youngsters.

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The tragic toll has once again prompted public discussion whether the pursuit policy is the right approach to deter or stop speeding drivers. The police maintain it is, and argue that a series of policy changes over the past few years have made chases safer for the police, the public and offenders.

But the sad fact remains that drivers and passengers continue to die evading police, despite four reviews of the policy in the last decade and a fifth due out next month from the Independent Police Conduct Authority.

The latest review is looking at 81 police chases which resulted in death or serious injury over 12 months to the middle of last year, a toll which authority chairman Judge Colin Doherty said was "81 too many".

The number of people killed during or following a pursuit rose each year between 2014 and 2017. Many of those who died were young, inexperienced male drivers and their passengers, succumbing to a youthful flight impulse. In 2017, 12 people died and 170 were injured fleeing police in cars. In that year there were 3796 pursuits, of which 626 ended in crashes, about one in six.

The approach in Australia appears far more restrictive, limiting chases to life-threatening situations or high-risk offenders. In Queensland for instance, which has a similar population to New Zealand, there have been no deaths attributable to pursuits since 2009.

Its officers chased offenders 126 times in 2016, the year that New Zealand police undertook 3323 pursuits and seven deaths were reported. The policy in Victoria permits pursuits when there is a threat to public safety or after a serious offence has been committed. In New South Wales, drivers convicted of evading police — or even causing police to start a pursuit — face up to five years in prison.

There will always be questions as to what amounts to a "life-threatening situation". Is it, for instance, a car screaming through city streets at night at breakneck speed?

In New Zealand the answer seems to be yes, but that may not be the case in Queensland, when pursuits occur only when officers have a reasonable belief that a driver presents an imminent risk to life or has committed a serious crime.

In New Zealand, police say pursuits are not taken lightly and take the view that drivers have a choice to stop or flee. Former IPCA head Justice Lowell Goddard in 2009 questioned the value of pursuits without observable, immediate threats to public safety, saying there was little public benefit in police taking action that could make a dangerous situation worse. Almost a decade on, her view remains tragically true.

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