Perhaps Judith Collins needs to slow down just a wee bit

Judith Collins let us know what she thinks about how the Police currently enforce speed restrictions on our roads. Not only did she actually get this wrong, but she probably shouldn't be telling us anyway.

Via RNZ comes a story about Police Minister Judith Collins taking issue in the House with the Police issuing speeding tickets to people who are breaking the speed limit.

The background lies in statements Collins made back at the end of May, when she announced a "funding shakeup" would mean fewer police officers on the roads and more resources "for things like burglaries". In defending this change in focus, Collins stated that she has "never been a big fan of the absolute restrictions on speed and I think you'll find there will be fewer police officers on the road."

Those sentiments took on a bit of an edge after the worst Queen's Birthday holiday period in 27 years, with 11 fatalities recorded. As as result, the following interchange took place in the House:

Stuart Nash: When she says she is not “a big fan of the absolute restrictions on speed”, is that because she thinks men on phones cause more deaths than speeding?

Hon JUDITH COLLINS: Because, actually, I do not agree with giving people speeding tickets for driving 1 kilometre over the speed limit. Because, do you know what? The way I see it—[Interruption]

Mr SPEAKER: Order!

Hon JUDITH COLLINS: Or even 3 kilometres over the speed limit. And one of the things I think is that when we have that sort of what I would say is very strict adherence, we can end up with drivers watching the speedometer to the exclusion of watching the road and considering the road conditions.

However, RNZ news also reported the issue as follows: "But Miss Collins told reporters she doesn't like seeing motorists who are doing 55 in a 50 zone being ticketed." As I can't find an audio recording of her actually saying this - the package from Morning Report didn't include it - I'm not confident to judge her on these words. Therefore, I'll put them to one side and just look at her parliamentary statements.

There are two things wrong with Collins' claim in the House, and one thing that might be wrong about it. 

The first wrong thing is that (in her Parliamentary comments, anyway) she flatly misrepresents the Police's policy on ticketing for speed. Here's how they describe it:

Driving faster than the posted speed limit is illegal. Police have the discretion to issue you with a speeding infringement notice (speeding ticket) if you drive at any speed over the limit.

If you are caught by a police officer or speed camera driving more than 10km/h over the limit, you can expect to be issued with an infringement notice.

In some circumstances, you are liable to get a speeding ticket if you drive more than 4km/h over the limit:

  • School zones – within 250m of school and preschool boundaries.
  • During official holiday periods – these are publicised in the media and on this website.

This policy applied even back in the summer of 2014-2015 when the Police publicly announced they would be taking a "zero-tolerance" approach to speeding. As the then Police Minister Michael Woodhouse explained:

Zero-tolerance was for very poor driving behaviour, that would lead to death and injury on our roads," Mr Woodhouse said.

"Police maintained a discretion, the speed cameras had a 4 [kilometre an hour] discretion but I accept that there may have been some confusion in the mind of the New Zealand public about what those discretions were.

So, there may well be the odd apocryphal occasion where an individual officer has exercised her or his discretion to ticket someone for traveling 1, or even 3, km/h over the relevant speed limit (say, 51 km/h, or 81 km/h, or 101 km/h) - but it certainly isn't anything like standard or expected practice that this will occur. 

The second wrong thing is that the claim "too much focus on speed makes people unaware of other dangers" appears to be an "I reckon" rather than objectively proven fact. From the RNZ story:

Associate Professor Samuel Charlton of Waikato University, a specialist in driver behaviour, said it was an interesting idea but he was not aware of any research in this area.

He said it was more usual to find that drivers did not know what speed they were going at.

So Minister Collins' observation seems more in the nature of a Kiwiblog comment than representation of reality. While she may believe that her particular interest in car culture gives her some sort of privileged insight into driver behaviour, for me it's peer reviewed science or bunk. 

For on that note, we need to realise just why the Police put such an emphasis on speed as a road danger. There's this thing called "physics". It's been around for a while now, and most people (outside of the Kiwiblog commentariat) have come to terms with it. And no matter how much time you may spend in cars, no matter how good you might think your driving is, you can't beat it.

Which brings me to the third thing that may be wrong with Minister Collins' statements. In saying "I do not agree with giving people speeding tickets for driving ... even 3 kilometres over the speed limit", she is coming dangerously close to telling the Police how to enforce the laws of New Zealand. Which is something that, as a Minister of Police, she is both statutorily and constitutionally forbidden from doing.

In terms of statute, the Policing Act 2008 makes it crystal clear that the decision whether or not to have a practice of ticketing all speeding drivers belongs with the Commissioner of Police, and the Commissioner of Police alone:

The Commissioner is not responsible to, and must act independently of, any Minister of the Crown (including any person acting on the instruction of a Minister of the Crown) regarding— 


(b) the enforcement of the law in relation to any individual or group of individuals

And there are very, very good constitutional reasons for why the (politically elected) Minister ought not to be able to tell the Police how to go about investigating offences and when and how to respond to lawbreakers. These reasons are discussed in this NZ Herald article from back in 2001. And here is (then) Police Minister Michael Woodhouse explaining their importance in relation to why he won't answer questions about the Police investigation into the ex-National MP Mike Sabin. To put those reasons in a nutshell, the cops get to exercise an awful lot of power over individuals in the name of upholding the laws of the country, and so you want to make sure that this power will not get deployed according to whatever political whim happens to seize the Minister to which they answer.

Now, of course, Collins didn't directly tell the Police not to issue (or to refrain from adopting a policy of issuing) tickets to speeders - or, low level speeders, anyway. But just like her boss John Key has done in the past, she did use language that looks a lot like a statement of ministerial instruction. Which is problematic, because what are we to think if, in the near future, the Police were to undertake a review of their road safety programmes and announce that they will no longer be making speed enforcement such a priority.

Sure, the Commissioner no doubt would reassure us that this really was his "independent" decision that was taken without regard to ministerial preferences. There may even be some good reasons to reassess the effectiveness of current practices. But when Minister Collins gets up in the House and informs the world that she "do[es] not agree with" particular policing strategies to enforce the law as written, can we really be sure that it isn't her personal preferences that are driving the police's decision on when and how to make sure the laws of the land are followed?