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Every second counts when police are speeding to a crime in progress or pursuing a dangerous offender.

But increased speed comes with a trade-off: increased danger.

This finely balanced relationship between risk and benefit poses a question: how fast is too fast for the police to drive?

When it all goes wrong

Just last month, three Queensland police officers and a member of the public were injured when a police car crashed at a Gold Coast intersection while responding to an emergency. 

It came just four days after a police chase in Western Australia ended in flames when a stolen car crashed into oncoming traffic. 

No one was killed in either incident, but these stories don’t always have happy endings.

In 2019, a Gold Coast teenager suspected of a break and enter died after being thrown from the stolen vehicle police were pursuing. 

And earlier this year a Sydney teenager was killed in an accident after having been earlier spotted by police, with conflicting reports about whether he was under pursuit at the time.

It is clear that faster speeds mean greater risk: We recently looked at the link between speed and danger and found that every 5km/h over 50km/h adds five metres to stopping distances and increases the risk of road accident, injury and death.

Add in criminals on the run - driving erratically and with scant regard for other motorists—and you have a potentially fatal recipe. 

What does the law say?

All Australian states and territories have some provisions for emergency services to break the speed limit.

The Transport Operations (Road Use Management – Road Rules) Regulations as adopted in Queensland state that:

A driver must not drive at a speed over the speed limit applying to the driver for the length of road where the driver is driving.

However, Section 305 provides an exemption for police officers:

  1. A provision of this regulation does not apply to the driver of a police vehicle if—
    • in the circumstances
    • the driver is taking reasonable care; and

(ii) it is reasonable that the provision should not apply; and

  1. if the vehicle is a motor vehicle that is moving—the vehicle is displaying a blue or red flashing light or sounding an alarm.
  2. Subsection (1) (b) does not apply to the driver if, in the circumstances, it is reasonable—
    • not to display the light or sound the alarm; or
    • for the vehicle not to be fitted or equipped with a blue or red flashing light or an alarm.

So yes, police can speed under “reasonable circumstances” and while taking “reasonable care” (it’s worth noting that police aren’t exempt from all road rules: they must not drive under influence of alcohol or illegal drugs or refuse a breath test).

But who defines what’s reasonable?

That is something currently being put to the test in Victoria. Leading Senior Constable Brad Beecroft was charged with ‘reckless conduct endangering life’ after travelling at up to 230km/h and overtaking 77 vehicles as he rushed to the aid of a colleague who had been hit by a car. 

The colleague spent a night in hospital but did not suffer life threatening injuries, calling into question whether it was reasonable to drive at 230km/h.

The officer argued that the “urgent duty driving” was “reasonable and justified” as he holds a gold license which exempts him from speeding restrictions. 

Victoria Police disagree, arguing gold licenses don’t exempt drivers from endangering life and citing analysis which found that Leading Senior Constable Beecroft’s driving made him “1.9 million times more likely to be involved in a casualty crash”.

Beecroft intends to fight the charges, arguing that the ruling could have ramifications for other emergency services workers who are required to travel at speed to urgent jobs.

What about Police Chases?

Police car pursuit vehicles after high speed chase

Police always chase bad guys, right? 

But many police departments around the world have moved to more ‘restrictive’ pursuit policies in response to research highlighting the dangers of police chases.

In the United States, 300-400 people are killed each year in police chases; in the UK, that figure is around 40 people per year

In Australia, research by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that “more than half of all people killed in Australia in an interaction with police die as a result of police pursuits.” More than a third of these fatalities were general public including pedestrian deaths.

The Queensland Police Service (QPS) announced in 2012 that officers would no longer pursue drivers thought to have committed minor offenses. 

The QPS Operational Procedures Manual does not allow pursuits unless officers can

justify that they “reasonably believe” they need to pursue a vehicle to immediately apprehend an occupant that:

  1. will create an imminent threat to life; or 
  2. has or may commit an act of unlawful homicide or attempt to murder; or
  3. has issued threats to kill any person and has the apparent capacity to carry out the threat; or 
  4. has committed an indictable offence prior to an attempt by police to intercept the vehicle.

All Australian states and territories now have some variation of these ‘restrictive’ pursuit policies, with the idea being to reduce risk to motorists and allow less dangerous offenders to flee before catching them later.

Do these restrictive pursuit policies work?

Opponents of these ‘no pursuit’ polices argue that they reduce deterrence, encourage dangerous driving (so that police call off pursuits), and lead to increased criminal offending and greater risks to other motorists

In Queensland in the years following the introduction of restrictive policies, there was an initial surge in incidences of evading police

Similar rises have been reported in other jurisdictions around the world, with police in Washington arguing that a recent bill banning high-speed chases has resulted in an increase in motorists failing to stop for police.

However, research by the FBI reduces danger and suggests that breaking off high-speed pursuits doesn’t mean offenders ultimately away. Once suspects realise that they’re no longer being chased, they slow down to normal speeds and become less of a risk to other motorists.

A study at Griffith University found that Queensland’s no pursuit policies have not lead to increased road death tolls due to lack of enforcement, and did not facilitate increased crime (except for evasion offences).

Consistent policing and ensuring offenders are caught later (after the pursuit has been called off) are key to ensuring restrictive policies work

Conclusions 

So, should the police be able to break the speed limit, including during pursuits?

Like many things, the answer comes in shades of grey.

Most people would probably agree it would be reasonable for police to speed to a siege taking place or to pursue a suspected gunman on the run.

Equally, most people would probably agree it is not reasonable for police to drive at excessive speed to pursue someone with a faulty brake light. 

Research backs this up. Excessive speed leads to a significant increase in danger; police pursuits in particular present serious and sometimes fatal risk to the general public.

Restrictive pursuit policies and constraints on police speeding can limit traffic danger while not allowing the most dangerous offenders to flee.

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