Motor Vehicle Pursuit-Related Fatalities in Australia, 2000-11

Article excerpt

The task of frontline policing is a difficult and dangerous one. Police officers respond to thousands of incidents each year where individuals are posing a threat to the safety of the community. In every incident, police members are required to continually assess the level of potential harm and to develop strategies to minimise or avert that harm. Arguably, one of the most challenging situations for police is when an alleged offender chooses to evade apprehension by fleeing in a motor vehicle. Motor vehicle pursuits are inherently dangerous and since they frequently occur on public roads, can pose serious risks to public safety. Occasionally, some motor vehicle pursuits end in a death- of those being pursued, of innocent bystanders, or of police members themselves.

Police agencies are acutely aware of the risks associated with motor vehicle pursuits and 'deciding whether to pursue a motor vehicle is among the most critical decisions made by law enforcement officers' (Bradford County Sheriff's Office 2009: 1). In an effort to reduce the risk of fatality during pursuits, some police agencies have recently engaged in coronial-led reviews and reforms of their pursuit policies. For example, throughout 2009, the Queensland State Coroner worked closely with the Queensland Police Service in reviewing the pursuit policy that had been in effect since 1 January 2008. The review produced 13 recommendations for reform (Barnes 2010), with the aim of re-focusing the pursuit policy on safety rather than law enforcement and discouraging officers from pursuing persons committing minor traffic and drink driving offences. Those recommendations were supported by the Queensland Police Service, who implemented a new 'more restrictive... police pursuits policy and associated training' in December 201 1 (Qld Government & QPS 2010: 5). Similar reforms were undertaken by South Australia Police in cooperation with the State Coroner throughout 201 1 and a more restrictive pursuit policy came into effect in January 2012. In Victoria, an Inspectorate Review of pursuits was conducted by Victoria Police in 201 1 , with the final report concluding that the 'Victoria Police policy is adequate and compliance by police members is high' (Victoria Police 2012: 5).

Previous research on police pursuits

The Crime and Misconduct Commission (2011) recently completed a review of the 'evade police' provisions in Queensland. While this study did not focus on fatal pursuits, it did find that

people who evade police in Queensland tend to be young, male and not to hold a current licence... they also tend to have a criminal history and an extensive traffic offence history (CMC 2011: xii).

This profile is similar to the characteristics identified in an earlier study by the Australasian Centre for Policing Research into pursuit offenders in South Australia (Brewer & McGrath 1990). The authors found that 97 percent of pursuit offenders were male, the average age was 22 years, 42 percent did not hold an appropriate drivers licence and 55 percent had prior convictions, commonly for traffic, licence/ registration and drink driving offences (Brewer & McGrath 1990).

International research has demonstrated similar patterns. For example, research conducted by the Independent Police Complaints Commission in the United Kingdom found that 98 percent of the drivers in the sample were male... 'the average age of the pursued vehicle driver was 24 years old [and] 36 percent were disqualified drivers' (Docking et al. 2007: 14-15). A study using nine years of data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System in the United States found that 'fleeing drivers were more likely to be male, were younger, and much more likely to be intoxicated or test positive for drugs' (Rivara & Mack 2004: 93). They also found that

the pursued drivers were more than twice as likely to have had previous convictions for driving under the influence [of alcohol], three times as likely to have had their licence previously suspended [and] they were 60 percent more likely to have had other motor vehicle convictions (Rivara & Mack 2004: 93). …