Leading Article: Police folly on the roads

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER young man has died crashing a stolen car after a police chase, the second in four days to do so in the Bristol area. All that is unusual about this is that two successive fatal crashes should have happened in the same area: the nation has grown appallingly accustomed to the idea that young men and innocent bystanders will die as a result of police action. So far this year, at least 15 have died, all over the country. If the fatal weapon concerned had been a gun, there would be outrage. But when people are killed with a ton of flying metal, rather than an ounce, it is almost accepted as part of the natural order.

The police nowadays are at least paying lip-service to the idea that car chases can be far more dangerous than their utility would justify. The Avon and Somerset police have announced that in the most recent incident, the pursuing police car gave up the chase a quarter of a mile before the scene of the accident. That sounds impressive for about 15 seconds, which is as long as it takes to travel a quarter of a mile at 60 miles an hour. The preceding 10 miles had been covered in eight minutes. A spokesman says that the Avon and Somerset force is quite happy with its procedures and policies, and will continue to adhere to them.

It is, however, little consolation to the ordinary pedestrian going about her lawful business, that the men in charge of a police car careening past on the wrong side of the road are doing so in accordance with a policy. There are two reasons why such a policy is unlikely to be drawn tightly enough. The first comes from the excitement of the chase. Urban policing nowadays is almost entirely conducted in offices or cars, and it is only in cars that a policeman can feel he is really hunting criminals. The urge to hunt down criminals is one that policemen need but it will always threaten to distort their judgements, and this danger is especially acute when the adrenaline is flowing. Car chases can be huge fun for all the participants. To forget this makes them very difficult to understand.

A police driver will always be tempted to embark on a chase too lightly, and to pursue until he himself feels threatened by the speeds reached and the recklessness displayed. That is too late. The more highly trained a police driver is, and so the more likely to be trusted to undertake chases in powerful cars, the more likely he is to push the pursued driver far beyond his limit of competence. Joyriders have by definition had insufficient experience of driving the powerful cars they steal. Since these cars are often at least as fast as the pursuing police vehicles, it is the inexperience of joyriders that provides the second great justification for very restrictive policies on car chases. In fact, there is a strong case for banning them completely.

The police would no doubt retort that crime in Britain today is as much car-borne as every other facet of British life; and that a complete ban on car chases would be tantamount to granting sanctuary to any criminal who could get himself on to four wheels. This, however, is nonsense. Only a fraction of attempts to stop a moving car result in high- speed car chases. And there can be no justification for chasing a car thief in ways that will only make him a greater danger to the innocent public. No stolen car is worth a human life.