Teenage joyriders who risk a high-speed death

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The Independent Online
John Champion, 19, of Hartcliffe, Bristol, died early yesterday when the Ford Sierra he was driving, and which a police patrol had pursued at speeds of up to 100mph, crashed near the city centre. The car had been stolen from Weston-super-Mare. A police spokesman said the patrol car was not in immediate

pursuit when the crash happened. It was the second such fatality in Bristol in five days. Last Sunday, Matthew Wigston, 21, died when the stolen car he was driving hit a parked car and somersaulted. He too had eluded a police vehicle that had been in pursuit. Mary Braid reports on the increasing cost of joyriding.

IN THE PAST YEAR there have been at least 15 deaths in road accidents which involved police vehicles in Britain. At least twice that number died in similar circumstances in the previous year.

Statistical breakdowns are difficult to obtain but in a significant number of these incidents the deaths of teenage joyriders, innocent bystanders and police officers were the consequence of police patrols pursuing joyriders.

Of the 580,000 cars stolen between April 1991 and March this year, the Government estimates that in 65 per cent of cases the thieves were teenagers, mainly boys.

The latest such death, of John Champion, who police spotted driving a stolen car in Bristol, again raises questions about police practice during the pursuit of joyriders and other suspected criminals.

National guidelines were laid down in 1989 to restore public confidence after the deaths of several innocent people during police car chases.

MPs and relatives had called for an outright ban on such pursuit, a move ruled out by top police officers who said public criticism was justified in just a few cases.

Since the guidelines were issued some areas like London have recorded fewer fatalities. Last year three people - all civilians - died in accidents involving police cars in the capital compared with seven - six civilians and one police officer - in 1990 and 13, including one police officer, in 1989.

Yesterday a spokesman for Avon and Somerset police said he was satisfied that his patrol officers had acted according to the national guidelines. He said he could only recall one death in the constabulary the previous year during a police car chase.

The 1991 annual report of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary records 578 accidents involving police vehicles, an increase of 251 on the previous year. In one in four cases the police were judged to be at fault to some degree. Nationally the police are estimated to be at least partly at fault in one in three of the accidents their vehicles are involved in.

The guidelines concentrate on pursuit techniques, practical training and control by senior officers usually in a control room. The safety of the public is to be paramount and controller or driver can abandon a pursuit the moment they consider there is an 'unjustifiable risk'.

A spokeswoman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said yesterday that much still rested on the individual judgement of police patrolmen and the unique circumstances of each chase.

In April this year the Government published the Aggravated Vehicle-taking Bill, which would increase the penalties for joy-riding to a maximum of five years in prison if death occurs.

Defendants will be guilty of the offence if the vehicle is driven dangerously, damaged or involved in an accident causing injury or property damage. Passengers who know the car has been taken without consent will also be deemed guilty.

Police in South Wales have begun using dogs on traffic patrol to chase thieves who run off after abandoning stolen cars.

(Photograph omitted)

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