Squad-car Tech Blamed in Cops' Distracted-driving Crashes
Technology in squad cars is contributing to a growing number of police-involved crashes on Minnesota roads.
Technology inside police squad cars contributes to auto crashes that involve police, according to students at St. Mary's University of Minnesota (SMU).
Their study (see PDF) covered 378 police-involved crashes in Minnesota from 2006-2010. In those incidents, distracted driving by police accounted for 14 percent of claims and 17 percent of costs—or $1,188,66.
Measured separately, technology inside squad cars played a role in 12 percent of claims and accounted for 24 percent of costs.
Laptops and Other Distractions
Potential distracting technology includes laptop computers, police radios, police cell phones, and squad cameras, according to Lt. Mike Monsrud of the Fridley Police Department.
But gadgets are not the only potential source of distraction, Monsrud said by email Friday. Officers "can also be distracted by people who they are transporting in their vehicle, such as prisoners," he said. The officers "need to keep an watchful eye" on people in the back seat who may have medical issues or try to hide items such as narcotics or weapons.
Tech's Role Unknown in Half the Crashes
The SMU study may not tell the full story, because the role of technology or other distractions wasn't clear in nearly half the cases. The report said that "48 percent of the closed claim files did not state clearly whether the crash was influenced by technology as reported by the claims adjuster or officer."
And at the time of the study, the student researchers did not gain access to information about 47 open cases of police-involved auto crashes during the same period.
Fear of Discipline?
SMU researchers also noted a feature of law-enforcement culture that may be skewing some of the data: Officers may not be completely truthful when recounting the details of a crash, for fear of disciplinary action.
The study stated:
"Individual departmental policies and procedures presented an additional difficulty in gathering accurate data. An officer will be closely scrutinized following involvement in a work related crash. An officer who shows inattention, carelessness, or distraction while performing essential duties is at-risk for departmental discipline. Ultimately, discipline may lead to termination. It is understood that an officer may weigh these factors when giving a statement regarding the facts of a crash."
An officer has faced consequences in at least one case in Fridley, according to Monsrud. "We did have one accident involving a police officer last year who was distracted by his laptop computer and ran into a vehicle while doing so," Monsrud said. "The incident was investigated and the officer was disciplined for the accident."
Awareness Training Proposed
The researchers are also calling for the creation of a statewide program in which law enforcement officers get training to recognize the increased risk associated with the use of technology while driving.
It's a risk Fridley police know well, Monsrud said.
"Every officer is aware of the problems associated with distracted driving and they are more than aware that they are by no means immune for those dangers," he said. "Unfortunately the new technology that helps us be more efficient also requires us to balance that efficiency with the potential distractions those items present."
Press Conference Set
SMU's Graduate School of Public Safety Administration conducted the study for the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT).
Officials from SMU, the League of Minnesota Cities and the Washington County Sheriff's Office have scheduled a press conference for 2 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the report and its impact on law enforcement in Minnesota.
The press conference will be held at the Harrington Mansion and Events Center on the SMU Minneapolis campus.