The government has bowed to rank-and-file pressure to change legislation around police pursuits to give officers a new confidence that the “law is on their side”.
The public has also weighed in with “overwhelming” support to bring in a new legal test for police officers facing possible criminal charges after a high speed chase.
It would mean police drivers will be held to different standards to the public if they are involved in a car crash while chasing a suspected criminal with the officer's expert training as a response driver taken into account if prosecution were being considered after a pursuit.
Officers currently rely on the discretion of the Crown Prosecution Service to avoid prosecution and face lengthy Independent Office for Police Conduct investigations and suspensions – at great personal cost in career and wellbeing – before being ultimately exonerated.
The Police Federation welcomed the plans as a “much-needed change” but said they came “too late for many police officers” having had their “lives turned upside down”.
The issue was brought into sharp focus two years ago when four police officers were cleared of gross misconduct after 18-year-old Henry Hicks died in a moped crash as he tried to evade them.
And last month saw the 10th police-related vehicle fatality since the beginning of the year. The Independent Office for Police Conduct said deaths and serious injuries following pursuits were "thankfully rare" as it investigated four separate fatal incidents involving patrol cars across the country over the course of a week in January.
Currently, all emergency services drivers are exempt from speed limit, traffic light and sign violations when undertaking a 999 response.
But the same legal test for careless and dangerous driving offences is applied to police officers and the general public.
The changes, which the Home Office said were backed by the "overwhelming majority" of respondents to its consultation, published on Thursday, will aim to:
- Introduce a new legal test so that an officer's driving is compared to that of a competent and careful police driver with the same level of training performing the same role, rather than a member of the public;
- Apply to all police officers trained to response driver level as well as advance driver level, therefore covering those pursuing criminals and also emergency police responders; and
- The various emergency service exemptions to traffic law will be reviewed.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: "It's vital police officers feel confident and protected when pursuing suspects on the roads or responding to an emergency.
"It's also crucial that we send a clear message that criminals – whether in cars or on mopeds – cannot escape arrest simply by driving recklessly.
"These proposed changes will strike the right balance – giving trained officers the confidence they need to fight crime effectively and ensure our roads are safe."
Police Federation Chairman John Apter said: "It is good that Her Majesty's Government has agreed to this much-needed change in legislation to reflect police driver training.
"This is a positive step and something we have long been campaigning for.
"Sadly, it comes too late for many police officers who have been investigated and had their lives turned upside-down, facing lengthy court proceedings for simply doing the job they have been trained to do.
"It is important that when police officers are required to use their training to protect society, they can do so with the confidence that the law is on their side.
"What now needs to happen is meaningful action – we need the Government to be bold, prioritise this issue, find the Parliamentary time to do so, and fulfil its promise to police officers and the public."
Amid concerns about moped crime, which saw some gangs steal as many as 30 phones an hour in London alone, police made efforts to smash the myth that officers cannot chase suspects if they are not wearing a helmet.
The Metropolitan Police also publicly aired its tactics that included tyre-deflation spikes and ramming suspects off motorbikes.
In March the force released figures that suggested a 49 per cent drop in moped-enabled crime – there were 12,540 offences in the 12 months to January 2019, compared to 24,398 the previous year.