Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Distracted driving by police an issue, but not as dangerous as high-speed chases

The greatest danger to police officers on the job isn't being shot by a criminal but dying in a car accident, so I was interested to see a  report from KXAN-TV declaring that "nine Austin police officers have been suspended for causing traffic accidents in 2012." Most recently, "An Austin police officer has been suspended for running a red light and causing a crash with another vehicle. It is the fourth time in the last year that an Austin police officer has run a red light and caused a crash."

KHOU-Houston recently reminded us that "Two years ago, an officer in Austin rammed into a motorcyclist in broad daylight. Later he admitted to being distracted," and supplied video of the incident. The officer was typing notes into his on-board laptop when slamming into the cyclist. After that episode, The city changed its policy to require officers using in-car computers to "pull over, complete what they need to do and then proceed," Assistant Chief Sean Mannix has told the press. The Tarrant County Sheriff has enacted a blanket policy against the practice, while the Plano Police Department requires officers to pull over if "extended use" of the in-car computer is expected. But most Texas agencies have left the practice utterly unregulated.

Of course, police running red lights or fiddling with their in-car computer while driving doesn't just endanger the public but the officers themselves. In 2010, Grits reported last year, "Eighteen officers were killed in Texas, more than any other state, and as usual 'fatal traffic incidents ... were the leading cause of officer deaths for the 13th straight year.'" Moreover, USA Today has reported that "At least 42% of police officers killed in vehicle crashes over the past three decades were not wearing seat belts or other safety restraints, according to a federal review."

A July 31 report from the Dallas NBC affiliate found police officers in Texas cause about three crashes per month related to distracted driving:
An NBC 5 investigation has found many Texas police departments don't follow their own advice when it comes to warnings about distracted driving. Crashes involving distractions inside police vehicles now frequently happen across the state.

The list of distractions for continues to grow. In many cities, they're often found operating two-way radios, smartphones, dashboard-mounted computers and on-board cameras while they drive.

A search of state accident reports reveals at least 70 crashes in just 24 months where some kind of distraction inside an emergency vehicle contributed to the wreck -- an average of almost three crashes per month. Those are just the crashes that involved enough property damage or injury that they had to be reported to the state.
In truth, three crashes for month is a fairly low rate compared to the number of accidents police are involved in and the amount of time officers spend on the road, so I'm not sure banning them from such activities is justiified. If Grits had to choose, enacting more regulations on high-speed chases would be a greater priority than disallowing police from texting or talking on the cell phone while driving. The need for communication outweighs the added risk (which IMO is also true for the general public). That said, using a radio, cell phone or even texting behind the wheel is one thing, but putting a laptop in the car takes the distraction to another level. Reading a few words in a text message is a lot different from combing through the amount of information that shows up on a laptop screen, which requires much greater focus. For that, I'd like to see a technical fix instead of a regulatory one: The devices should simply be automatically disabled when the car is moving.


Anonymous said...


Phelps said...

Or, even better than disabling them, we go to two officer patrol cars, and the passenger and do laptop duty.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Phelps, that would be "better," perhaps, but you know full well it's not going to happen.

For the record, when there's a second officer in the car I'd have no problem with the one in the passenger seat getting on the laptop. Otherwise, disable it.

Anonymous said...


Get 'em off the terminals. That's the worst problem. Head turned down and to the right with extensive typing going on requiring having to focus on the imput/output. :~)

North Texas Cop said...


Your plan might work but you'll have to double the number of Dispatchers and possibly triple the size and cost of the radio systems. All of that equipment was put in the cars in the name of efficiency and so that LE could do more with less (i.e. fewer cops per citizen even as demands for service increased). The calls still have to be answered and the information still has to flow whether it's by radio, telephone, or in-car computer.

Anonymous said...

"All of that equipment was put in the cars in the name of efficiency and so that LE could do more with less (i.e. fewer cops per citizen even as demands for service increased)."

That may be the official line, but the reality is they just wanted some new cool toys to play with.