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Study Finds Police Distracted While Driving

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Minnesota police car

Minnesota police car

Bryan Vila, a professor at work on a first-of-its kind national study of distracted driving among police officers, says: “Every gadget that we’re stuffing in the car puts demands on the human being that human beings can’t do,” as Trisha Volpe writes for Kare11.com. Vila is a former Los Angeles police officer himself, who now teaches at Washington State University in Spokane.

Kare11 and the MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) news division did their own study, examining hundreds of crash reports since 2010, Volpe writes. After looking at several hours of police squad car videos spanning four years, they found 61 car accidents in which distracted driving by police was a factor, according to crash investigators. Volpe writes, “More than half the time, the officer was distracted by something inside the squad car, such as a cell phone or computer.” She adds:

The average police officer drives thousands of miles more than the average driver and the number of crashes involving distracted police officers is still relatively low. Still, cops acknowledge the technology wedged into the front seat is making safety harder. Imagine juggling radios, phones, squad computers that give officers important information and fast communication with dispatchers, all while trying to patrol the streets, looking out for suspicious activity or someone who needs help.

Deputy Chief Mark Bruley, courtesy Brooklyn Park, Minnesota Police Department

Deputy Chief Mark Bruley, courtesy Brooklyn Park, Minnesota Police Department

To address the problem of distracted driving in police vehicles, the Brooklyn Park, Minn., police department trains its officers not to take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds at a time, as Brooklyn Park Deputy Police Chief Mark Bruley told Volpe. The department moved the squad computer in each police car closer to eye level in the front console so that police don’t have to look down and lose sight of the road, Volpe writes.

Brooklyn Park police are also required to take defensive driving courses in which they’re tested on their ability to handle distractions, Volpe writes. When two officers are in a vehicle, one operates the equipment and the other drives, she reports. However, the department does not ban officers from using cell phones or computers while driving. Restricting police from using that equipment would hamper their ability to do their jobs, Bruley said, adding that the department is trying to find a balance. Volpe writes:

[W]hile most large metro law enforcement agencies surveyed have policies that address distracted driving, none bans the use of cell phones or computers while the vehicle is in motion.

New technology may help reduce distractions in police cars, Volpe writes. Minnesota’s Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has software in 77 squad cars that senses when the vehicle is moving, and locks the computer’s keyboard when the car is going more than 15 miles per hour, she writes.

In a related news item, Annie Correal writes for The New York Times blog New York Today that Mark Treyger, a city councilman from Brooklyn, would be introducing a bill to expand New York State’s texting-while-driving ban to bicyclists. Under Treyger’s legislation, those ticketed for texting or talking on the phone while biking would have to pay a $50 fine, which could increase to $200 for repeat violations, reports Erin Durkin for the Daily News. Treyger said his bill would protect the lives of the cyclists and those around them. Chicago and Flagstaff, Ariz., have already banned texting while biking, as Durkin reports.

Here is a video that MPR posted showing how Minnesota trains police officers to deal with distractions.

Image by Fibonacci Blue, used under its Creative Commons license.

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