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Departments : The Winning Edge

The Dangers of Distracted Driving

Patrol car computers are a great tool, but sometimes it's best to pick up the mic and talk to the dispatcher.

May 22, 2013  |  by Mark D. Reese

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.com.
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.com.
The other day, I was driving down a city street to run an errand. The traffic was light, not too many other cars on the road. It was condition "normal" like any other day. Then I saw a car approaching me. It swerved into my lane once, then again. I thought to myself: "Here comes an impaired driver."

I quickly switched gears internally to "cop mode," and I prepared to take evasive action and get the license plate number of this possible impaired driver. Just as this car approached mine, I was shocked to see that it was a marked POLICE.

I looked at the officer, and I could see what he was doing that was causing him to swerve. He was looking at his in-car computer while trying to drive. I thought to myself, "What if he had struck another car? Hit a stationary object? Injured someone?" This officer and his agency would be liable for his distractions and behavior. This is unacceptable.

Technology's Downside

New technology has improved modern policing in many ways. During my career, I saw many changes, including the move from revolvers to semi-automatic handguns, from straight batons to PR-24s and collapsible batons, from Mace to O.C., from stun guns to TASERs, and from 12-gauge shotguns with ghost ring sights to AR-15s with holographic sights. That's just the evolution of weapons. On the safety equipment side, I have experienced the widespread adoption of concealable lightweight body armor.

When it comes to communications, we have seen our two-way car radios with multiple channel knobs replaced by digital, programmable screens supported by computer dispatch terminals and better radio towers with microwave technology and secure public safety bands. Our portable radios are smaller and more compact versions of the old "bricks" that used to adorn our duty belts. And of course we can now dispatch calls for service electronically directly to cars equipped with onboard computer systems.

Computers and Distraction

In-car computers are useful tools in law enforcement and public safety. They work great when you are not distracted and have time to read the information on the screen that is being sent to you. Computers are also useful when you want to conduct records checks on vehicles and individuals that you encounter.

In-car computer deployment was intended to make the job of a modern law enforcement officer easier in conjunction with other tools in the car. But it also created several safety concerns.

The people who first thought of adding computer displays to the cockpits of patrol cars probably thought they would be used by the passenger officer in two-officer units. Sadly, very few agencies now use two officers in a patrol unit, so the computer is read by the driver and that can lead to deadly multi-tasking.

We have statutes in many states against distracted driving, including texting while driving, talking on a cell phone, and other technological multi-tasking. So given the prevalence of in-car computers in patrol cars and how they are often used by an officer who is driving, we have to ask if the rules governing distracted driving apply to police officers as well as the public.

You may think that distracted driving laws are not your concern because after all, your job requires you to monitor that computer display. But if you are sued for causing a crash and you were glancing at the computer at the time, you can bet that plaintiff's attorney will argue that you were distracted, and your agency will be on the hook for a big judgment.

I think we can all agree that operating a police vehicle takes more training than the rest of the motoring public. Emergency vehicle operations courses (EVOC) are required for most basic police academy students before they can drive agency vehicles. EVOC is also a requirement for in-service training.

Some 25 to 30 percent of police officer line-of-duty deaths result from motor vehicle collisions. Many officers are also injured in traffic crashes. Technological distraction is becoming a common cause for these accidents.   

Fixing the Problem

The best form of mitigation in any problem situation is to change the behavior through training and policy improvement. Supervisors, mid-level managers, and executives within your agency need to understand that managing your in-car computer involves risk management.  

In the early '90s, I was a member of my agency's Accident Review Board. We had just started a pilot project with our neighboring agencies to evaluate early in-car computer systems. What our board found was an increased number of crashes by deputies who had computers in their patrol cars.

All the crashes we investigated during this period were ruled "avoidable" because the deputy did not have to take his or her eyes off the road while driving the vehicle. These deputies had other options. The primary option was to tell the dispatcher, "Broadcast the call." Yes, use the radio. Communicate with the dispatcher by radio, and you will get the same information and keep your eyes up on the road where they belong in emergency driving situations.

Communication policies for both patrol officers and dispatchers must unilaterally indicate that the in-car computer is a tool, but the primary communications between the officer in the field and the dispatcher will be two-way radio communications.

Supervisors monitoring and directing resources in "hot call" situations should insist that the officers close the computer screen down and drive safely to the call. Dispatchers need to broadcast live updates on the emergency calls, giving situation updates and timely information. Remember, you can talk faster than you can type. 

Moving Forward

You should always be concerned with officer safety and information security. With the increasing use of encryption, the two-way radio channels available to public safety agencies make the technology more secure, so you don't need to worry about "scanner land" in many instances for officer safety. The radio is still your friend. 

The technology that has been developed over the past few decades makes your job easier. And the in-car computer, when used properly, is a great boon to officer safety. But we have to ensure that we are arriving safely to the call for service and that we are not creating a safety problem for the public that we serve. When in doubt, pick up the microphone and close the computer screen. 

Mark D. Reese is a retired sergeant from the Lane County (Ore.) Sheriff's Office. He has held assignments in patrol, corrections, special operations, and as an active field training officer.

Tags: Distracted Driving, Driver Training, In-Vehicle Computers, Officer Safety


Comments (3)

Displaying 1 - 3 of 3

Mustafa @ 8/6/2013 12:58 AM

In-car laptop makers should make their computers not respond to user interaction (touches, tapping on the keyboard, etc, etc) when moving at a speed over 5 mph. Like in most modern cars these days, if you were to try and watch something on the navigation screens (which you can do, I had a 2001 BMW 7 Series that could do that) it would only play audio, and not respond to user interaction while trying to use video controls. In the same way, in-car police computers should stop responding to user interaction when in the 'Drive' gear and/or travelling more than say 5-15 mph and then again start responding to user interaction when stationary or when in the 'Neutral' gear or in 'Park' so that they can still use the computers in traffic stops, just not when driving.

Marti @ 11/13/2013 8:58 AM

All in-car computers should have voice activation software. A lot of the software is voice activation compatible but is not usually set up to enable it nor do they have microphones (around $150 each) that goes with voice activation. Safety-wise, this should be a must with PDs and SOs.

Spencer Burt @ 11/23/2013 4:03 PM

This is so ridiculous I see so many cops typing away on their in car laptops! If we can't text or call and drive they shouldn't be able to use their computers while driving. Even if there wasn't a law like where I live about texting and or on the phone while driving I still wouldn't do it! A computer isn't right in your face like a phone and more stuff for the cops to have to read which is more dangerous and scary. I think they need to make laws for the police or monitor their computers with software. If they see they have been using it while driving they get fired. Obviously they would tell them up front before they start their job and use the police car so it's a fair warning.

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