With Bluetooth-linked smartphones, GPS systems and touch-screen car radios cluttering modern dashboards, tech-related distractions are an increasing factor in vehicle crashes.
Police, with squawking radios and on-board computers added to the mix, are no exception to the perils of distracted driving.
That issue came into focus in late March, when veteran Larimer County sheriff’s deputy Isaac Nail crashed his personal vehicle into the fence of a north Loveland home while on his way to work March 29. He said he was distracted by his pager.
Nail was cited for several traffic offenses after he left the scene. An internal investigation of the crash is ongoing.
Officers face a steady stream of information while on patrol, some of it potentially life-saving information that needs attention — even while driving.
Fort Collins police officers were found at fault in 79 crashes since April 1, 2009, department statistics show. The bulk were minor incidents. However, seven were due to distracted driving related to officers’ on-board computer. Of those seven, three involved hitting another vehicle. Officers were cited twice.
Officers in Fort Collins are involved in an average of one crash per month. As a result, the department reviews protocols in its 714-page policy manual at least annually. The sheriff’s office reviews its policy, but the public must submit a formal open records request to view its manual.
So what is demanded of officers tasked with paying attention to their computer while keeping an eye on the road?
Across the nation, nine people are killed and 1,153 injured daily in crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A distraction of only two seconds is enough time for a vehicle to travel more than 120 feet at 45 mph.
And with the proliferation of mobile devices, law enforcement efforts to cut down on distracted driving have grown in profile.
But sworn personnel with Fort Collins police and the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office — as well as virtually all agencies across the country — have liberties over the general public when it comes to driving and operating on-board electronics. This is especially true when reading in-car computer notes during emergencies or punching in a license plate for a routine check.
Some from the public feel that leeway creates a double standard.
Those liberties were a point of contention in December 2013, when a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy made international headlines when he struck and killed a Napster executive with his cruiser.
Deputy Andrew Wood was leaving the scene of a fire at an area high school when a message on his on-board computer asked if everything was OK. While driving 45 mph, he typed a response, failed to negotiate a curve and hit Milton Everett Olin Jr., according to the LA County District Attorney’s report.
However, Wood was found to have been “acting within the course and scope of his duties when he began to type his response,” the report stated. Wood could have felt an “immediate response was necessary” to stop another deputy from responding to a scene unnecessarily.
No criminal charges were filed against him.
Carefully crafted gray areas within department protocols afford a leniency that is necessary for cops to do their jobs, officials say.
Phrases like “generally limited to” and “reasonably” regarding officers’ attention to their computers while driving open the discussion to interpretation.
“It is relatively vague just because we have to let the officers do their work,” said Cory Christensen, deputy chief with Fort Collins Police Services. “They know that when they are called in for being on (computers), we hold them accountable just like any other citizens.”
Call notes, including other officers en route, histories at a residence, arrest warrant information and a barrage of other alerts often stream across the screen. Dispatchers also air pertinent information over the radio for many emergencies.
In Fort Collins, officers are directed to use smartphones and hand-held devices only in urgent situations and to pull over when practical. Use of onboard computers for emergency and department information is a gray area, but policy states: “At no time when the vehicle is in motion should the display be viewed by the driver for visual entertainment, including Internet browsing or the use of social media or email.”
FCPS policy also prohibits officers from sending or reviewing “lengthy messages” while on the move.
Christensen said training behind the wheel ranks high on the priority list to combat distracted driving, but he admitted no amount of training or experience can completely curb an officer’s risk of being involved in a crash.
Residents who see what they believe to be concerning behavior on the roads are urged to contact the agency. Officers may be reprimanded or, at the very least, issued a warning from supervisors, Christensen said.
“We don’t just take a cavalier attitude,” he said. “I always encourage citizens to let us know when they see something that bothers them.”
Reporter Jason Pohl covers breaking news and law enforcement for the Coloradoan. Follow him on Twitter: @pohl_jason.
Fort Collins police:
Use of handheld devices, including phones, can “cause unnecessary distractions and present a negative image to the public. Officers operating emergency vehicles should restrict the use of these devices to matters of an urgent nature and should, where practicable, stop the vehicle at an appropriate location.
Use of in-car computers “should generally be limited to times when the vehicle is stopped. When the vehicle is in motion, the operator should only attempt to read messages that are likely to contain information that is required for immediate enforcement, investigative or safety needs. At no time when the vehicle is in motion should the display be viewed by the driver for visual entertainment, including Internet browsing or the use of social media or email … Short transmissions, such as a license plate check, are permitted if it reasonably appears that it can be done safely. In no case shall an operator attempt to send or review lengthy messages while the vehicle is in motion.”
Larimer County Sheriff’s Office:
“Communication shall be appropriate and necessary to conduct official business. The vehicle operator should only attempt to read messages or view required screens that are likely to contain information that is required for immediate enforcement, investigative or safety needs. Data entry should not be conducted while the vehicle is in motion upon public roadways. Any use of the mobile data system while operating a motor vehicle shall be documented in a manner that does not constitute inattentive or careless driving.”
If residents see a violation in progress and wish to report it, they can call Sgt. Jerrod Kinsman with Internal Affairs at 970-221-6831. Complaints may also be filed online by going to www.fcgov.com/police or by emailing [email protected]
Complaints against the sheriff’s office can be made by calling dispatch at 970-416-1985 and asking to speak to a supervisor.
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