The number of pedestrians and motorists killed during police chases has risen fivefold in four years, and many of the the deaths could have been avoided because the pursuits were unnecessary, a highly critical report by the Police Complaints Authority said yesterday.
There were 44 deaths involving police pursuits in the year to March 2002, compared with nine in the same period to March 1998. Most happened on quiet or almost deserted roads, often in 30mph zones in built-up areas, a study by the authority found.
The study, Fatal Pursuit, investigated 85 collisions involving police chases between 1998 and 2001, which resulted in 91 deaths. In most cases the car being chased crashed into another vehicle or an obstruction such as a tree. Just over half of the dead tested were found to have been drink-driving and a quarter had taken cannabis.
Officers made "inadequate risk assessments" during some pursuits leading to wrong and "risky" decisions, said the report.
The report's author, David Best, head of research at the PCA, concluded: "The police continue to engage in too many pursuits that endanger public safety and the most effective way to reduce this is by increasing management control on the evolution of pursuits and reducing officer discretion about both initiating and continuing with pursuits.
"Many of these incidents are potentially preventable, either by changes in force policy or by proactive measures designed to bring out safe and effective resolution of such incidents."
It recommended managers should take charge of pursuit from the control room. The discretion of the police driver to pursue a car should be reduced and officers should not pursue unless they had a "clear, centrally agreed strategy for attempting to stop the vehicle safely", the report said.
Communication between officers in the police car during a pursuit was "not satisfactory" and there should be specialist training for passenger officers.
Unmarked police cars and convoys of police cars should also be barred from being involved in chases, the report said.
Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the PCA, said: "I am most concerned that the numbers of fatalities have continued to grow and there is no sign of them levelling off. If anything the latest figures show the rate is accelerating. The present situation cannot be allowed to continue and a positive effort must be made to manage these events properly."
The danger to pedestrians posed by speeding police vehicles was highlighted when the Channel 4 newsreader Sheena McDonald was left in a coma for 72 hours after being knocked down by a police van rushing to deal with a pub fight in Islington, north London, in 1999.
Ms McDonald suffered serious head injuries and was in hospital for two months after the accident.
Earlier this week, a police car answering an emergency call struck and killed a woman pedestrian in Shooters Hill, south-east London. The crash happened shortly after 1am on Monday.
The Association of Chief Police Officers said it did not understand why the number of accidents had risen so sharply.
Acpo's spokesman on police driving, Bill Brereton, Deputy Chief Constable of North Wales, said senior officers would discuss with the Police Complaints Authority how they could reduce the death toll.