12 Aug 2021

IPCA on police tow truck report: 'People deserve to be worried'

10:04 am on 12 August 2021

The public should be worried about road safety in light of a damning report into the police's mishandling of tow trucks, an investigations overseer says.

Heavy traffic flows northbound from Auckland city after a crash over the Harbour Bridge caused lane closures.

Police did nothing about complaints about its use of tow trucks, IPCA chair Judge Colin Doherty says. Photo: RNZ / Katie Fitzgerald

The Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) has found police were aware for years of unsafe operations on Auckland motorways - but did nothing.

Police are watchdogs of the roads but were not watching or enforcing their own contract with a group of Auckland towies, for over eight years.

IPCA chair Judge Colin Doherty said the safety rules, that set out the size of a tow truck allowed to tow trucks or buses that are broken down, or in a crash, were being breached.

"In a nutshell, we found that the vehicles that were being used to tow these large vehicles were not really large enough and technically sufficient enough to do the job," Doherty told RNZ.

It was possible towing connections were too weak, but he was not aware of any accidents linked to this, the judge said.

'Police actually didn't do anything'

The authority said police failed to check when they awarded the contract back in 2013, if the consortium of eight tow companies was up to the job - and it did not have enough big tow trucks to do it.

When concerns were raised, police at first did not act, then did an inadequate investigation by an officer who was not impartial - and even then police did not understand the safety implications, the report said.

"There had been complaints made by another towing company to police over time but police actually didn't do anything about it," Doherty said.

"So it's not fair to say that police didn't know about it. They did, but didn't take the appropriate action.

"People deserve to be worried about it. That was the point of our inquiry," Doherty said.

"This is not just a contractual issue - they [police] were bound contractually, we found, to make sure that these vehicles complied - but there is a public safety and congestion safety aspects on Auckland motorway."

The ripples spread further.

"This has raised the question of what's happening elsewhere," as police had towing contracts around the country, he said.

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Judge Colin Doherty says people should be concerned about the police's mishandling of tow trucks Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

In a statement, police said they are now doing a national audit of those contracts.

They had written to the Auckland tow truck consortium outlining concerns.

"We accept that this was not good enough and not up to police's usual high standard of managing contracts," police said.

They promised to focus on the compliance of heavy vehicle towing contractors "to ensure the safety of all road users".

Assistant Police Commissioner Bruce O'Brien told Morning Report the IPCA has been focused on the capacity of one vehicle to tow above 36,000kg.

He said police have engaged with an independent engineer to provide assurance the vehicle is safe to tow heavy vehicles on the motorway.

"These vehicles that are part of these contracts do have their annual certificate of fitness which provides that level of safety, it would be really hard for me to say if there was a risk to public safety. This was more about the poor handling of our contracts."

He said if the truck was found to be unsafe to tow a heavy vehicle there would be a risk.

"At this point in time we need that independent assessment to provide the advice around that particular vehicle. At the time we had the regulator advice that that vehicle was safe to tow vehicles above 36,000 kilos."

Police won't comment on the donation that was offered by the consortium to a police road safety programme, he said.

The donation indicated "was not part of the consideration of awarding them" the tender, he said.

On top of the contract woes, the IPCA found police had been misapplying the law, "giving illegal directions to tow operators and unlawfully threatening to arrest operators if they do not comply with police directions".

Police said they are fixing that with new guidelines for officers.

The towies themselves rejected the findings.

National Recovery Alliance spokesperson Chris Ratcliffe said the consortium was "confident that the towing vehicles are legally compliant".

"Every operational truck in the ... fleet has a current Certificate of Fitness ... and carries valid LT400 certificates for its stated tow capacity."

Police had audited them before giving them the contract in 2013, and they had passed many inspections since, Ratcliffe said.

The most recent NZTA audit in the last 60 days raised "no safety concerns".

The IPCA never talked to the alliance during the investigation, however, the authority said it did not need to as the focus was on police, Ratcliffe said.

It also relied on what it called "belated" audits done this year, by police and Waka Kotahi.

This points up another safety gap revealed by the investigation - unreliable or missing data that the Transport Agency needs to keep track of tow truck safety.

"There have been a number of discrepancies and inconsistencies in Waka Kotahi records between the rating of trucks and their permits, and a number of trucks in operation without any overweight permits at all," the IPCA said.

It was told NZTA was developing a better system.

Waka Kotahi refused an interview with RNZ about road safety, saying in a statement the problems are sorted.

"Waka Kotahi has completed a project to correct inaccuracies in the motor vehicle register specifically around maximum tow ratings for recovery vehicles," it said.

"All heavy tow vehicles based in Auckland were inspected, information was gathered on other heavy tow vehicles in New Zealand and the register is now up to date."

Police are still using the National Recovery Alliance in Auckland for motorway heavy towing but only for vehicles under 36 tonnes, so, not the really big trucks.

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