Minnesota Police Officers Distracted by Squad Car Gadgets

November 18, 2014

As police cars across Minnesota add more technology, there’s growing concern that officers may be experiencing the same distracted driving they’re supposed to stop.

Research by Minnesota Public Radio News and KARE-TV found 61 crashes in four years where an officer’s distracted driving was a factor. Most of the accidents involved officers who were distracted by a gadget inside of the squad car, such as a computer, cellphone or radio. Many other crashes involved an officer who took his or her eyes off of the road to check drivers for seatbelts or vehicle information.

“Every gadget that we’re stuffing in the car puts demands on the human being that human beings can’t do,” said Bryan Vila, a former Los Angeles County deputy turned Washington State University professor who’s working on a national study about distracted police officers.

Although the number of crashes is relatively low compared to the number of miles officers drive each year, they acknowledge technology is making safety harder. There are roughly 17,000 distracted driving crashes in Minnesota each year.

Brooklyn Park Deputy Police Chief Mark Bruley thinks of the modern police vehicle as a “mobile office.” His department trains officers not to their eyes off of the road for more than a couple of seconds. Squad computers have also been moved so they are closer to eye level.

Brooklyn Park officers must also undergo defensive driving training that tests their ability to juggle the many routine distractions inside of a squad car. When officers are working in pairs, they’re encouraged to separate driving and technology, and they’re encouraged to pull over when they’re alone. But the department still allows officers to use phones and computers while they’re driving.

“We know that if we restrict it too much then it’s going to affect their ability to perform their jobs,” Bruley said. “We’re trying to find that balance where we can have both.”

Many of the larger metro law enforcement agencies address distracted driving through policies, and none of them ban the use of technology while the vehicle is in motion, MPR News and KARE-TV found.

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