Investigation finds technology inside police vehicles can lead to distraction, causing wrecks

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 and computers.

"You may get complacent in what you're doing and think you can do all these things and maintain control of your vehicle," said Sgt. Bill Lowe with MSHP. "The reality is, you can't."

Issue gaining more attention

Keith Wenzel is a recently-retired sergeant with 30 years experience in the Dallas Police Department. He now travels the country and teaches a safety class called "Beyond the Cones" for Lifeline Training.

In April, 41 Action News sat in on a class presented at Johnson County Community College.

The seminar focused on decision-making behind the wheel. Wenzel's two main topics focused on officers driving at unnecessarily high rates of speed to routine incidents, and distractions from in-car technology.

"You can't put a computer in a car and all these different technology systems in a car without there being a huge distraction," Wenzel told 41 Action News. "Officers are wrecking squad cars all over the country because they're focused on something else."

Wenzel believes it's impossible to teach officers how to multi-task using a computer and driving at the same time. He showed dashcam videos of what can happen when officers are too distracted or driving too fast.

In some instances, the images are disturbing and leave a lasting impression on attendees -- everyone from rookie cops to police chiefs. One video shows a boy being hit on his bicycle as he crosses the street.

Wenzel said if police departments think distracted driving isn't an issue, then their "head is in the sand." He added the latest generation of officers is more comfortable using the computers to send messages instead of the radio system.

"If (a wreck) hasn't happened yet, it can, and it probably will," he said.

How are police departments responding?

41 Action News contacted police departments around the Kansas City area to see how they are addressing use of in-car technology while driving.

There are a variety of approaches. Some departments spell out exactly when computers should and should not be used. Other agencies had no policy that mentioned use of computers.

LIST | Local police policies for operating technology while driving http://bit.ly/ZzgQmX

"We don't have a policy specifically prohibiting officers from using computers while driving," said Capt. Steve Young, a spokesman for the Kansas City Missouri Police Department. "Many required functions that can occur while driving are essentially hitting one button, maybe even easier than changing a radio station, so banning its use is not practical."

Despite having one of the largest police forces in the state, Kansas City did not have a distraction-related crash in the 2012 database. Young said a reason could be the department's frequent use of two-person patrol crews. In those cases, the passenger does all the typing, he said.

Independence police also don't have a policy addressing computer use while driving. Spokesman Tom Gentry said the department relies on annual training to teach officer the best practices for using in-car technology.

Other departments, like Lee's Summit, prohibit officers from using computers while driving unless they are hitting one-stroke commands known as "hot keys."

Police departments generally have a panel that reviews all officer-involved crashes. If a wreck is preventable, officers receive discipline that can range from a warning to termination.

Will departments use new technology to curb distraction?

St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch is exploring a new option to deal with distracted driving by his officers.

In the past 18 months, St. Louis County officers caused six distracted-related wrecks. That was the most of any department in the database provided to 41 Action News.

Based on the size of his department and number of miles driven -- 2 million -- on urban roadways per year, Fitch said he wasn't necessarily surprised.

However, he is looking at an emerging technology that disables in-car computers once a patrol vehicle reaches a certain speed (i.e. 15 mph).

"You will still be able to read messages on the screen," Fitch said. "The technology will just keep you from being able to type unless you pull over to the side of the road."

Fitch said his department is studying the price of the computer technology along with the cost-benefit analysis of implementing it.

At a recent meeting of police chiefs he attended in Washington D.C., Fitch said more departments are also pondering the use of more two-person patrol crews.

"These vehicles have become like a traveling police office," he said. "They are not just a mode to get from point A to point B."

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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