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Issue No. 412 April 2017

Dave Cliff on the road

Dave Cliff as the nation saw him during the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake emergency.

In 34 years in Police, Dave Cliff never forgot the horrors he saw as a young Constable at fatal crash scenes in Auckland.

A father walking to church with his family killed by an alcohol-affected driver on a pedestrian crossing; a woman impaled by a trailer which came off another vehicle.

Though the MOT or Traffic Safety Service had responsibility for road policing in the 1980s, police attended fatal crashes. “Those are some of my clearest memories as a young Constable,” says Dave.

“They almost always involved alcohol. The misery of it – even as a 20-year-old – made you think ‘What the hell’s going on?’

“It sparked my interest – you couldn’t help thinking ‘This is ridiculous, this has to be stopped’.”

As National Manager and later Assistant Commissioner Road Policing, Dave took this interest to the highest levels in Police. He left last month to pursue it further as CEO of the Global Road Safety Partnership, based in Geneva.

The partnership – where Dave spent six months on attachment last year – works to reduce road trauma in 10 megacities in Asia, South America and Africa, with fledgling interest in Eastern Europe.

It seeks to build road policing capacity, offering advocacy, mentoring and grants. It is aligned to the UN’s Global Decade of Action for Road Safety, which aims to halve road trauma by 2020.

Megacity issues include vulnerable pedestrians, helmetless motorcyclists and people driving cars with low safety standards, without safety belts, too fast and often drunk.

“Trauma rates are extremely high and probably where we were 30 years ago,” he says. “There’s a lot to do.

“When safety belts were introduced here there was mass resistance. Thirty years ago everyone knew if you had a couple of drinks you were more relaxed and drove better. People routinely drove at very high speed and thought nothing of it.

“We realise those attitudes were nonsense – but it’s taken a long time and there are still many who can’t get their heads around driving speed determining crash outcome. Why should we think lower and middle-income countries will move faster than us?”

To contribute to the global target, New Zealand must cut its annual road trauma rate from 7.1 deaths per 100,000 population to around 4.

That, says Dave, means tough decisions – including reducing speed, speed limits appropriate to the road, improving the deterrent effects of penalties, improving vehicle safety and engineering ever-safer roads and roadsides.

“We’re still getting beaten up by the same old nonsense about revenue raising. Our enforcement is about one thing only - prevention of road trauma - and fines imposed are part of the deterrence strategy.

“There’s no incentive for Police to raise revenue and never has been. In fact, it costs Police money to issue a notice.”

Dave is best known publically for his reassuring presence as Canterbury District Commander during the 2010-11earthquakes.

“It was the best of times and the worst of times,” he says. “We saw police at their absolute best but in a terrible situation.

“Our staff who responded so beautifully also had damaged homes, family members injured, kids traumatised. But they kept working for the greater good.”

Dave regards Police as “a fantastic organisation with fantastic people”.

“Police’s ability to do good is extraordinary. But from what I’ve seen overseas it’s incredibly fragile and it doesn’t take much – by design or lack of focus – for that to be eroded.

“What we’ve achieved – such as New Zealand’s lack of corruption, its equality, Police being apolitical – is all fragile and must be carefully guarded.”

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