KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Police constantly warn motorists about the dangers of distracted driving. In most states, they can even give you a ticket for texting behind the wheel.
But a 41 Action News investigation found some officers are not taking their own advice, allowing their attention to stray from the road to patrol vehicles filled with the latest police technology. That distracted driving is leading to wrecks and putting those officers -- and the public -- at risk.
Drivers share their police crash stories
In August of 2012, Robert Dyer was driving on Crysler Avenue in Independence, Mo., when he put on his blinker and slowed to make a right-hand turn.
In his mirror, Dyer could see an Independence police car rapidly approaching.
"I yelled, 'Watch out' to my friend in the passenger seat," Dyer told 41 Action News.
The rear-end collision twisted Dyer's truck around. His friend went to the hospital. Dyer's head smashed the back window of his truck from the recoil. The crash report indicates the officer was looking at his computer and never even hit the brakes before the collision.
"I'm just sitting there thinking that there's this policy about everyone with cellphones and other things that you're not supposed to do in the car,” Dyer said. “But here police officers get by with it. Kind of seems like a double standard."
In Sugar Creek, an officer reading text messages hit a parked Salvation Army bus. In Lee's Summit, an officer looking at his computer hit a curb and popped a tire.
Similar stories played out in other parts of Missouri. In October of 2012, Jill Pingel stopped her car in traffic, looked in her rear-view mirror and noticed a St. Louis County officer staring down at his computer. She braced for the impact.
"It was my last day of maternity leave," Pingel said. "I was extremely lucky that my baby girl just happened to be at home instead of riding with me in the car during that errand."
Dashcam videos | Police crashes http://bit.ly/ZCwTjL
In December of 2011, Marie Unterreiner was rear-ended by a Florissant police officer as she turned into her cul-de-sac.
"He told me he was running my license plates," Unterreiner said. "I just had my wisdom teeth out and my chin hit the steering wheel, so it hurt like hell."
And in August of 2012, dashcam video obtained by 41 Action News showed another crash. In that incident, a Missouri state trooper was responding to an emergency and looking at his computer. When his car drifted off the road at 60 mph, the trooper overcorrected and skidded into a ditch.
RELATED | Mom fights distracted driving by police http://bit.ly/10hO9j9
But perhaps the most dramatic incident was a close call for a Johnson County, Mo., sheriff's deputy. According to the crash report, the deputy was on his cell phone on a rural gravel road.
He approached a railroad crossing and didn't notice a train coming until the very last moment. The deputy slammed on the brakes, but the train hit the front of the patrol vehicle, spinning it parallel with the tracks.
The deputy was not seriously injured, but Sheriff Charles Heiss said he was probably just a couple of feet away from losing his life.
The Union Pacific train captured the collision on video, but a company spokesman declined to provide the footage to 41 Action News.
How often is distracted driving blamed for police crashes?
In 2012, there were at least 35 law enforcement-related crashes that involved some type of technology distraction, according to statewide data provided to 41 Action News by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. That figure could grow because staff members are still entering crash reports into the system from the last few months of the year.
The specific overview of distraction-related crashes is possible because of more detailed crash reports that debuted in 2012. When "inattention" is checked as a contributing circumstance, an investigating officer now has the option to choose up to 15 different factors -- everything from texting to eating to fiddling with the stereo.
TIMELINE | Technology-related police crashes in 2012 http://bit.ly/Zzf3OK
Of course, the accuracy of the statistics also depend on the honesty of the officers involved in the crashes. If an officer fails to mention that he was on his cellphone when he wrecked a patrol car, it likely wouldn't be tallied in the database as a distraction-related crash.
From St. Louis to the Kansas City area, 41 Action News reviewed crash reports in which officers admitted their attention had shifted from the road. In the majority of the reports, officers said they were looking at their in-car computers before a crash.
"Yeah, it's very easy to get distracted with everything going on inside this car," said Sgt. Andy Coats, a 17-year veteran with the MSHP.
During a ridealong with 41 Action News, Coats rattled off all of the devices that now require an officer’s attention inside a patrol vehicle: a siren box, radar speed enforcement, two radios for communication, license plate scanners