It is approaching 4pm on a Friday afternoon when most people are maybe winding down for the weekend, but I’m approaching Havant Police Station to go out on a late shift with the Road Policing Unit expecting to be scared stiff while driven at high speed catching speeders and doing other enforcement.
I’m met by Inspector Steve Wakeford, who having joined the police 24 years ago has had experience in most front-line police roles.
There are three sectors in Hampshire and Steve heads the East Hampshire part of the RPU, which stretches from Emsworth in the east to Southampton in the west and Alton in the north.
But officers can be expected and do attend to calls outside their sector as necessary.
Steve explains to me that his drivers are not ordinary drivers and that they have attended a nine-week intensive advanced driving course, driving eight hours a day to reach the required level of proficiency, and as I will report later, this shows.
Many of the drivers are ex-armed forces and their personality traits and acquired skills are a good match to those required by the RPU.
The prime objective of the RPU is to reduce deaths and serious injuries on the roads, and they have had some success in bringing the death count down to 45 in the past year which is half that we had 10 years ago.
They target the four main causes of these incidents – excessive speed for road conditions; driver distraction; not wearing seat belts and drink/drug intoxication.
The East Hampshire district has seen an unwelcome increase in drink-driving (200, up 15 per cent) over the past year, but a welcome reduction in no seat belts (900, down 25 per cent); speeding, not fixed speed cameras (2,000, down 11 per cent) and no insurance (400, down 30 per cent).
We next wander down to see the fleet which consists of marked cars, unmarked cars and motorcycles, all of which are capable of being driven at over 150mph.
Liking both fast cars and technology, I’m keen to go out on the shift.
The Serious Collisions Investigation Unit deals with majority of fatal incidents but the district deals with some too and the RPU officers are responsible for all administration and the investigation of incidents.
They also provide any information for the coroner and liaise with the next of kin on fatalities so they are not on the road all the time. I’m now beginning to better understand why motorways and major trunk roads can be closed for many hours after fatalities.
I’m assigned to Ian and at 5.30pm, we leave the office, and sitting in the front passenger seat I observe all the technology. Having graduated in electronics, I’m keen and curious to understand what everything does.
Just after passing over the railway bridge going south, Ian spots a broken down white van seriously obstructing traffic going north on Park Road South. After quickly checking insurance and other details are in order, he hooks up the towing strap and tows the van out of the way, so freeing up the traffic and making the van recovery easier.
By 6.30pm, we are on our way to help out the Local Neighbourhood Policing Team and a response and patrol officer who had strong grounds to believe a driver was under the influence of drugs.
Here a field impairment test was performed on the driver to assess his limb and mind co-ordination and he just passed. This seems to be an effective test with getting 100 per cent right not so straightforward even for a normal driver.
Then back to the car and I was fascinated with the operation of the automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) system as it methodically and automatically checked car ownership, tax, insurance and MoT details from car registration numbers picked up by the front and rear cameras.
Despite what readers may have seen on TV, the ANPR doesn’t sound ‘yabba dabba dooo’ when it finds a problem. As a driver, I very strongly support the police in their initiatives to get untaxed cars and uninsured drivers off the roads and this ANPR equipment is very effective.
At 7.30pm, we stopped a driver with no seat belt delivering pizzas.
After a pep talk on the dangers of neglecting to wear a seat belt, the driver opted for a £35 education course instead of a £100 fine.
The ANPR also showed a lack of business use insurance; Ian explained to me that the RPU was not there to alienate the public and get the most possible money from offenders; they were there to improve attitudes and promote safe driving.
The driver had heeded Ian’s request to get the right insurance cover before doing any more deliveries and showed remorse – what good would have been achieved by having the car recovered?
This was a fair use of discretion in my opinion.
Now at 8.15pm and still in Portsmouth, we had our first emergency and because there were no free cars in the western sector of Hampshire, we took the call to go to the A31 in the New Forest.
‘Are you okay with fast driving?’ Ian asks, and my response was, ‘you should do what you need to do’. At which point Ian turns on the blue lights and siren as we cautiously cross a red light and within a few minutes are racing down the M27 at over 140mph.
Before having gone out with the RPU, I had wondered whether this very high speed driving was really necessary, but on an earlier trip in March with the RPU, I had been driven at similar speeds to find a minibus in lane one of a fast dual carriageway with its offside tyre shredded and the driver needing to change the wheel.
All the occupants were out of the minibus and on the other side of a crash barrier, but a fast approaching car or HGV could very easily have hit the minibus up the back with potentially tragic consequences, so as far as I was concerned, literally every second counted.
The young men in the minibus were on their way to a stag party in Bournemouth.
Here the RPU car was parked further back with blue lights flashing while the wheel was changed and they left, but not before taking a photo of us with the groom to-be dressed ‘pretty in drag’.
Were you in the party? Tweet me, and I hope the stag party and wedding went off well!
Back to the New Forest call now, I was so surprised at the very rapid progress we made to get to the New Forest, the journey out of Portsmouth and along the M27 was not scary despite the high speeds; I attribute this to the skill of the driver and his risk aversion while driving at high speeds such that I never felt in danger.
We arrived at the A31, not being able to locate the car and with the driver of the car not answering calls.
I felt frustrated that the driver had called the 999 service only to seeming get his vehicle running and not call the 999 service back to cancel the callout.
After this abortive call out, we drove back along the M27 to Havant police station for a break with the ANPR running and checking for speeders without using radar but with a fascinating piece of technology that relies on the: distance = speed x time equation.
I did tell you I like technology and I quizzed Ian on how this works.
After a break it was my turn to go out with Mike, only this time it was in an unmarked police car, which from the outside looks like an ordinary car but which also had all the technology of the marked cars.
All the police cars have GPS units installed so central control knows exactly where each is at any point in time.
Our proactive task was to patrol areas based on earlier intelligence, and this is easy in the ‘unmarked’.
By 11.30pm, the ANPR detected an oncoming car with no insurance and so after a quick U-turn we were off in pursuit (no blue lights) and followed the car into a public house car park.
The driver explained he was a car dealer and that his motor policy covered him for all cars, but he did not have his policy with him (even though he had been stopped three times before for the same reason).
Mike accepted the documents (shown on phone) seemed valid but he was given a notice to produce insurance documentation to a police station within seven days.
Although the RPU would have been within their rights to tow the car away, sensible discretion was again used.
For this shift, we – the police, public and I – were fortunate that we attended no serious incidents and that it was a quiet night so to me, this was goodness, unlike on my previous night when we attended to an overturned car in a built up area (see photo).
For this incident, the residents heard a loud crash, and on going outside, they saw this car had collided with another car and was now on its roof. They helped the occupants out of the overturned car, and then the occupants turned their backs and ran away!