15 Feb 2022

Police road safety operation misses the target

8:04 am on 15 February 2022

A nationwide police operation to cut down on high-risk driving and road deaths has missed its target, an OIA reveals.

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Police highway patrol car. Photo: 123RF

Most police districts missed most of their targets most of the time, reports released under the OIA about Operation Deterrence that ran for six months till December 2021 show.

Some key measures were worse than before the operation began.

"The results for Op Deterrence were not what we had hoped for," the director of the National Road Policing Centre, Superintendent Steve Greally, told RNZ.

Covid-19 measures swallowed up lots of road police time - about 25,000 hours a month.

But "we do not want to offer an excuse. We just simply have to do better", Greally said.

Just a few months ago, he launched Operation Deterrence telling all staff in June 2021: "We are not achieving our agreed operational outputs so need to make a targeted and decisive effort to stem and reverse the upward road trauma trend through general deterrence."

The road toll is stuck above 300 despite the pandemic restrictions on travel.

Operation Deterrence was all about doing more - more stops, more speed camera hours, more ticketing: "The intensity of enforcement plays the key role in behaviour modification," Greally said in June.

But it did not work:

  • Only 14,000 seatbelt offences were ticketed against a target of 25,000 (short by 43 percent)
  • Cellphone offences - 15,000 against 20,000 (short 25 percent)
  • Mobile speed camera hours 26,000, against 33,000 (short 22 percent)

"Most districts ... are still performing below the required ... activity levels," the reports, that cover from July to November, repeatedly say.

The number of drivers caught for seatbelt and cellphone offences were actually "considerably" lower than in the three months before the crackdown began.

Mobile speed camera hours were patchy though, crucially, improved in Auckland.

The targets for drink-driving - though less clearcut - were missed.

Police are funded for about double the breath tests and 40 percent more mobile speed camera hours than they actually did last year.

Auckland Transport has called the shortfall a "tragic failure" that costs the city 10 needless road deaths a year.

"We accept that we need to focus more on breath testing and on enforcing speed," Greally said in the OIA response to RNZ.

Operation Deterrence was prompted by a stubbornly high road toll and a spike of deaths and serious injuries in Auckland last year; it was planned for three months but ran for six.

Road deaths have declined from the grim highs above 700 in the 1970s and 80s, but at nowhere near the rate of comparative OECD countries. From 2010 to 2020, the road toll fell 36 percent in Europe and 20 percent in Australia, but only 14 percent in this country.

Operation Deterrence aimed to put greater priority on road policing - but officers kept getting pulled away to do other things anyway, though this was not always made clear.

"We faithfully report the numbers of staff recorded as being in dedicated Road Policing positions but staff are telling [us] that they are constantly being" put on other duties, Greally's report in June said.

"This obviously prevents them undertaking road safety activities, but does not show up on the official figures that are being reported to the executive and minister."

The Operation Deterrence reports were "seen as an opportunity to obtain some 'ground truth'."

They show that pandemic checkpoint duties contributed about two-thirds to the 25,000-hour a month drain on road police.

"Whilst the Covid-19 lockdown environment has been a significant challenge over the past two years, this is not something police can blame entirely," Greally said in a statement.

He has been national director for seven years, and recently began offering his services as an international consultant to help developing countries boost safety outcomes, according to his LinkedIn page.

Among the dozen police districts, only Waikato got close to meeting the operation's targets.

Nationally, 15 percent of speeding tickets were meant to be issued to motorists going less than 11km/h over the limit; but police only managed about 10 percent.

And a hefty 70 percent of tickets were meant to be issued by officers (as opposed to cameras) on rural roads, but only half were. Rural roads are the most dangerous.

"Most districts are demonstrating a noticeable decrease in performance," the August report said.

"Either half or just over half of the districts demonstrated a decrease in performance for restraints, distraction, and speeding offence detection on rural roads compared to the three months prior to the operation," the September report said.

An increase in enforcement activities is one of three keys to the government's Road to Zero strategy that aims to cut the road death toll by 40 percent by 2030.

This is a turnaround from 2018-19 when police, and the Police Minister Stuart Nash, both said that doing fewer breath tests was a tactic to target resources at the highest-risk drivers.

"We're not after numbers, we want impact," Greally said back then.

Nash told the Coroner: "I expect the targeted approach to be more effective in preventing harm on our roads."

The reports suggest that 1070 road police officers were "reinstated" in mid-2018 - but police told RNZ this was about a review of all road policing vacancies as part of its goal of cutting road deaths by 5 percent year-on-year. They achieved that from 2018-2020 when deaths fell 7.5 and 8.5 percent.

Police kept Operation Deterrence in play twice as long as planned, hoping for an impact on the last Christmas holidays.

However, the holiday road toll ended up at 17, easily the highest since 2016-17 (19 deaths) and four times the four deaths in 2019-20. Seven died at the last Labour Weekend during Operation Deterrence, versus an average of five since 2016.

This country's road death rate of 7.6 per 100,000 population is about three times the safest countries, and almost twice Australia's, though globally the average is 18.

Greally said police were "working hard to improve its performance. Police has recognised it needs to do better".

They are testing new road policing deployment methods in Auckland, and have just launched a new road safety control strategy in response to a Transport Ministry review of investment in road policing and infrastructure.

Among the hurdles ahead is that because Waka Kotahi is taking over mobile speed cameras, it has agreed with police they can cut back the annual target from 100,000 hours nationally, to 80,000 hours. Mobile cameras are widely seen as one of the most effective tools to make roads safer, because of their unpredictability.

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