Police tell death-chase inquiry of 'red mist' risk

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The Independent Online

A "red mist" of rage and excitement overcomes some police drivers when they chase a fleeing vehicle, officers have told an inquiry into the record toll of people dying in pursuits.

A "red mist" of rage and excitement overcomes some police drivers when they chase a fleeing vehicle, officers have told an inquiry into the record toll of people dying in pursuits.

In the past seven months, 26 people have died during car chases involving police vehicles – one more than in the whole of last year – despite a national campaign to reduce the number of fatalities and improve driving standards. At the current rate, by the end of the year the number of deaths in England and Wales from police pursuits will reach 40, in stark comparison with the nine recorded in 1997.

In the most recent cases, both of which were on Saturday, a 14-year-old boy died after he lost control of the car he was driving and crashed into a road sign in Bury, Lancashire, while being chased on a motorway by police.

In a separate incident in Cleveland, a car being driven by a 16-year-old boy – and being chased by police – crashed into the side of another vehicle, killing its 22-year-old male passenger.

The Police Complaints Authority, the independent body that oversees investigations into police pursuits, has set up an inquiry into the rising fatalities.

During its preliminary interviews, several police drivers revealed some of their colleagues were affected by their emotions at the start of a chase.

Dr David Best, the head of research at the authority, said: "What police drivers say [about some of their fellow drivers] is that a red mist comes down when the pursuit starts and there's a disproportionate determination to catch the person being chased."

He added: "The officers who join the traffic police may be prone to being attracted to a car-type culture – this needs to be investigated. We also need to examine whether there is a disproportionate level of force used following a pursuit."

Dr Best said early research found most chases ending in death lasted three to five minutes and the person fleeing was usually a young white male with a criminal record who may have been drinking and was probably a banned driver.

The authority believes many of the current procedures may be at fault and says radical rule changes are needed.

Last year saw a record 25 deaths. In the first seven months of this year 26 have died –– five of them pedestrians – during chases. That compares with a total of 15 deaths in the same seven-month period last year.

Dr Best will be examining about 100 cases of pursuits that took place from 1998 to 2000 as part of his inquiry and believes the causes behind the decision to chase a vehicle need to be investigated. He said: "We need to consider whether the police report the full risks involved in a case enough to the control room to allow them to continue the pursuit and whether they start pursuing on relatively weak evidence." He added: "One of the big questions is when police break the road highway safety law are they doing it justifiably. When they speed or go through red traffic lights can they justify it?"

Sir Alastair Graham, the chairman of authority, said: "There is a rising tide of death taking place in police pursuits. This is the issue causing the PCA greatest concern at the moment. We are anxious to find ways to bring down the death toll. We may have to take a radical approach to the issue and completely rethink how the police response to pursuit situations in the future."

Some chief constables believe part of the problem is caused by the Home Office setting targets for the police to respond to emergencies, something they say encourages speeding. In Sussex, the force has refused to record the emergency response times because of their concerns over road safety. In the Metropolitan Police some vehicles are having aircraft-style "black box" recorders fitted to retain details of the speed at which a car was travelling when it crashed.