Increase in police chase deaths puts drivers in hotseat

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The Independent Online

Police drivers faced calls yesterday for a reduction in their powers to break the speed limit and go through red traffic lights after a "totally unacceptable" rise in the number of deaths in car chases last year.

The independent Police Complaints Authority called for a review of the law that allows police drivers sweeping exemptions to traffic regulations when in pursuit of suspect vehicles. The authority's annual report, published yesterday, shows the number of deaths in police pursuits had risen by 178 per cent in four years.

In 2000-01, chases led to 25 deaths and 16 serious injuries. Of those who died, 18 were in the vehicle being followed and the rest were pedestrians or in other civilian vehicles. No police officers were killed.

Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the authority, said the increase in deaths could not be allowed to continue. "If there is no early improvement I recommend that the Home Office should seriously consider reviewing the law to ensure that police officers can break the road traffic law only if they are undertaking pursuits for a serious offence."

Under the Road Traffic Act 1988, police drivers have unrestricted powers to pursue vehicles. But although officers are permitted to break traffic laws they can be criminally prosecuted. In March last year, James Coughlan, 83, was crossing a road in Ilford, north-east London, when he was struck and killed by a police car on an "immediate response" call. The driver, who had been using his blue light and warning horn, was acquitted of driving without due care and attention but was given a written warning from the Metropolitan Police.

A second Met Police driver is facing a criminal prosecution after being involved in a fatal crash while responding to an emergency call from a lone female officer in January last year. The police car collided with a taxi near a pelican crossing in Kennington, south London, and then hit Ravindran Sivanesan, a pedestrian.

Sir Alistair said he was worried by reports of officers taking part in pursuits when they had "inadequate training" or "inappropriate vehicles". He said police drivers had to recognise the need to give priority to public safety above all else.

The authority also warned of continuing evidence of sexual harassment by male police officers, but welcomed a "dramatic reduction" in the number of deaths in police care and custody from 65 in 1998-99 to 32 in 2000-01, although there was still a disproportionate number of African-Caribbean deaths.