Is it crisis time for Traffic Policing? Pt 1.

Back in the day we had a separate traffic policing department, known as the Ministry of Transport. Anyone older than about forty will well remember the fear that would creep into your being every time you saw the sinister black and white patrol car or motorcycle approaching you.

Even if you knew you hadn’t been doing anything wrong, there was always the worry that they might have seen something that piqued their attention. These were the guys who could take your licence from you, and as a teenager in the 80’s as I was, that was a major. I had no one else to rely on to get me to where I was going, I needed a licence. Of course there was always those times when you thought no one was watching and would drive like an idiot, but when you did get caught, you knew you had earned the ticket. There was no such thing as getting a ticket for 5 kms over the limit, as no self respecting traffic cop would ever stoop to that.

In 1992, the Police took over the MoT. Officially it was a merger, but those of us who were there could see it for exactly what it was. Now all police cars would be capable of writing you that ticket. Maybe for a year or two people held that fear that every white patrol car would be looking at their driving.

That pretty soon dissipated as people came to realise that plenty of the cops would simply ignore traffic offences. I strongly remember police officers stating that they would never issue a traffic ticket. It was beneath them; they were real cops, not meter maids. The current National Manager of Road Policing, Steve Greally, was rumoured to be one of those. I guess he has had to change his traffic cop hating ways now that he is the boss.

Over time the boffins realised that things weren?t working, so more change was needed. The Strategic Traffic Units (STU) were set up and most of us old snakes were placed into these positions. This was quite good and it was a bit like back in the old days as we did our own thing. New GDB cops would get rotated through STU to try and give them a grounding in traffic. Some loved it and even stayed on; most just worked out their six months and never picked up a ticket book again.

But still we were being called away from our duties to help out the general duties cops. The road toll kept going up, so the Highway Patrol was set up. This was big news at the time and was sold to us all that we would be a separate force within the police. Our cars would go back to being different so the public could recognise us again, they would have blue and yellow stickers on them not just the blue chevron stripes of the wooden tops.

More importantly, the funding for the Highway Patrol was to be ‘ringfenced’. We were to always have our own funding, and this was a big drawcard for most of the guys who had been used to having their own car or bike, and had looked after them immaculately. One of our biggest bugbears with the merger was that we lost that ability to look after our own gear, as some other GDB cop was always taking our cars and leaving them either in a mess or a dangerous state. Of course, from an efficiency point of view this all made sense, but when your tyre blows out at 160km/h on the North Western Motorway because some twat had kerbed your wheel and done nothing about it, you get kind of angry after the shaking subsides.

Well the road toll started to come down and of course the police took the credit for this just as they always do when something good happens. (Of course it is always the stupid public’s fault whenever things go bad.) In reality the real reason for the road toll coming down was mainly due to cars becoming much safer with active and passive safety measures such as traction control, ABS braking, crumple zones and airbags. Better access to hospitals via helicopter also made a large difference.

But when things are going well, they don’t need as much effort or funding put into them. So successive governments started eating away at the money. New technologies replaced guys on the street and we saw a huge increase in the use of speed cameras. Initially there were just cameras on poles, supposedly in high crash areas but really just put in places where they could catch the most offences; but eventually the camera van came into existence. Most were unmarked vehicles, although some were marked to show how fair they were being. The money rolled into the consolidated fund but little of it made its way back to traffic enforcement.

Then fast forward a bit to the last National government. They were particularly good at whittling away Police resources. Probably the only thing I agree with the Labour party on is the fact that there was indeed nine long years of neglect when it came to police. Funding was being drastically cut and staff were being appropriated to other areas. This was being compounded by police district bosses who saw no benefit in traffic policing and were consciously dismantling those crews. All the while denying that there was a quota system, when there clearly was.

When I retired in the late 2000’s, (before National got their hooks in), General Duty staff had to write 330 tickets per year in my area. This was disguised as a quota for ‘hours of traffic enforcement’ but there was a written expectation that for every hour of traffic enforcement done, a cop should write at least one ticket. They called it a ‘performance indicator’. The problem was that if you hadn’t reached your required hours by the end of the year it was no big deal, but it sure was if you hadn’t reached your ticket numbers. Remember, this was for General Duties cops; the numbers for Highway Patrol were around 1,600 hours/tickets per year.

So what is happening now? Well those quotas are gone. In the next part of this missive, I shall explain how things are currently and why it’s not working. The traffic cop numbers are steadily reducing, the road toll is steadily rising, the cops that are there are disgruntled, and it’s only going to get worse.