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When traffic cops used to rule New Zealand roads

A proud group of Traffic Safety Service officers, before the merger with police. Photo/New Zealand Police Museum 2016/495/1p
Anyone who remembers when there were two kinds of police out and about – traffic cops and the other kind – probably needs to be reminded the former were officially known as the Traffic Safety Service and were part of the Ministry of Transport, not the NZ Police. That changed in 1992 when the two bodies were merged. TSS officers continued road-policing duties but were gradually trained for other roles.

“The TSS course included a one-week police recruit firearms course,” says New Zealand Police Museum director Rowan Carroll. “Also class work on the Crimes Act, Summary Offences Act and Misuse of Drugs Act. Roll-out of the courses for the 1129 uniformed MoT staff took 12 months.”

Mergers always have their speed-bumps, as it were. Stu Kearns had been a traffic officer in the TSS for nine years before the merger and stayed on for another 20 years.

He says he and his colleagues were made to feel conspicuous in the early days. “We all had an ‘e’ in front of our number, and the police would call us ‘ernies’. We were identified as ex-traffic officers. So we did get a hard time.”

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More seriously, Kearns laments that the old cop-motorist dynamic was altered by the merger.

“Guys in my era joined the Ministry of Transport because we had a passion for road safety and an ideal of saving injuries and lives. That ethos wasn’t carried over at the time of the merger.”

There was certainly no suggestion of a quota in the MoT days. “Probably just 20% of people who were stopped were given tickets.” The rest were spoken to about what they were doing, encouraged to do better and sent on their way. According to Kearns, the police did not share that attitude, being used to dealing with criminals.

And what say you liked being a traffic cop? You’d joined up to be a traffic cop. If you’d wanted to be a regular cop, you’d have signed up for that instead.

“They could remain traffic officers employed by the police – mostly those just a few years away from retirement,” Carroll says. “Essentially, it was just the employer that changed.”

And if you were a regular cop and didn’t want to spend your time giving errant motorists safety chats and sending them on their way with a cheery wave?

“Police have always chosen their career path and were not required to do solely road policing,” he says. “Everyone was taught aspects of the Transport Act [1962] and drink-drive procedures.”

However, Kearns notes there were also financial disadvantages for traffic officers in the merger. “We used to get overtime, but police don’t. It took me nine years in the police to equal my last pay in the MoT. And we lost our vehicles, which were part of our job, so then guys had to buy vehicles to get to work.”

Fortunately for Kearns, he was able to find his own niche in the police and do work that kept him there for two more decades.

“I had three-and-a-half years in search and rescue, though not fulltime. I did 12 months in APEC planning, which involved motorcade training and organising traffic movement for Bill Clinton and others. And I did seven months in comms. But most of my career has been in road police.”

In his final years, Kearns ran the serious crash unit – his passion for road safety undimmed by the “collision” of two kinds of policing.

This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of North & South.

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