Is it time to disband the Traffic Police altogether?

Photo credit: Grant Matthew, Stuff

I think it might be time to bring back the flash. And while we’re at it, perhaps we can just completely do without Traffic Cops.

I’ve been having a bit of a think lately about how much time, effort and money is spent every year trying to keep the road toll down to a minimum. This seemingly futile task is one that has been talked about a lot lately, following another year of an increasing road toll. Jeepers, even your Associate Transport Minister, Ms Julie-Anne Genter seems to have given up all hope and admitted that it might be decades before meaningful road toll reductions materialise, and slapping speed camera vans in the middle of passing lanes sure as eggs won’t be the way to get people on board with the message.

Speed camera van hoovering up cash in a passing lane, SH1 near Waipu, Dec 2018. Photo: ExPFC

We all know that the current levels of traffic policing are not great.
10 years ago there were 1112 dedicated road police on the roads.?
Today there are 975 which is less than the number of Traffic officers employed by the Ministry of Transport before the 1992 merger with the police. Much of this demise can be set directly at the feet of the previous National Party and their policy of re-allocating traffic related resources. Within the Police department, it is also well known that over the last six to eight years, the Police hierarchy has systematically sidelined road policing staff, rotating them onto other policing tasks and basically flogged much of the funding that was supposedly ‘ring-fenced’ for Highway Patrol and that is nothing short of fraud.

This started happening in earnest when the ex-traffic bosses of the Ministry of Transport started leaving in droves and people with absolutely no interest in, or even any traffic enforcement skills, were promoted into positions of power. Heck even the current National Road Policing Manager Superintendent Steve Greally was once rumoured to have advised fellow staff that he had never written out a traffic ticket and had no intention of ever doing so.

National road policing manager Superintendent Steve Greally.

So what to do? Well as I was driving into town one evening on my way to get fish and chips, a vehicle came driving towards me. We were in a 50km/h zone in a Northland holiday town and the car approaching me was doing at least 90km/h. I had recently passed a patrol car heading in the opposite direction so I knew she wouldn’t be catching him and I knew that right then, there wouldn’t be anybody else on patrol in the area so I flashed the car. You know, flicked the headlights on momentarily as we all seemed to do in the past when there was a Ministy of Transport patrol car up the road.

I didn’t do it to help the other driver avoid getting a ticket. I did it in the hope that he would slow down and it worked. He immediately hit the brakes and slowed quickly down to about 50km/h. I imagine that he either was completely oblivious to his excessive speed, or most likely, he thought I was warning him that a patrol car was around the next bend.

Studies have shown that there is a small halo of safer driving of about one kilometre surrounding any patrol car. I know from personal experience that when I’m driving, if someone flashes me, I am quite wary of my speed and driving for quite a few kilometres just in case there is an actual patrol about, so that halo gets extended out further. I imagine this chap did the same thing. It’s all about the perception of being caught.

Traffic enforcement always used to be about the 3 E’s, Education, Enforcement and Engineering. Well that particular driver just got a little bit educated, and maybe by slowing down through this busy holiday spot, he avoided causing a tragedy.

The engineering side of things is currently being looked after by JAG et al with their new policy of trying to make things safer with barriers etc and by trying to force vehicles to travel at push bike speed. It’s a shame we will likely have to wait for The National party to find a friend so they can get back in and start building better roads for our most important stretches, but such is life. But what about the enforcement side of things, do we need dedicated traffic cops anymore?

JAG’s Utopian vision for all, barriers everywhere and an 80km/h speed limit, SH1, Brynderwyn. Photo: ExPFC.

The road toll last year was 379, the highest for about a decade but let’s put that into perspective a bit. Now I would absolutely love to see a zero road toll as God knows I have seen enough carnage out there during my career as a Traffic cop.

In New Zealand last year, we lost around double that amount due to smoking. Also around double the amount of deaths were as a result of suicide. Hell, even mistakes by doctors resulted in around 180 deaths last year.

So what if we just disbanded the traffic enforcement side of the police? My guess is, without any traffic cops on the road, we would possibly have a small increase in deaths, maybe we would get up to 450 or so, but the reality is, most people don’t drive like idiots, they drive to the conditions and won’t actually need to change their driving behaviour at all.

If the 300 odd million that is currently spent on traffic enforcement was to be reallocated to say suicide prevention, or smoking, we as a nation could potentially save a hell of a lot more people than if we just kept harping on about speeding all the time. At the end of the day, a life wasted is a life wasted, why does it matter if the person died on a road rather than in a hospital bed because a doctor was too tired from his ridiculously long shift and prescribed the wrong medication?

Sure there will still need to be staff to attend crashes, herd escaped cattle off the road etc, but maybe we’re just wasting our time and money trying to fight a losing battle? In a series of coming articles I will take a closer look at some of these issues, so please come along for a ride.

But please, if you’re driving, this is not the time to be educated, put your bloody phone down!