As police cars add more tech, worries about distracted driving grow

Police officers are expected to enforce distracted driving laws — but how often are officers distracted?

Incident reports from across Minnesota show dozens of crashes in the last four years involving police officers distracted behind the wheel. While those numbers are small compared to the 17,000-plus distracted driving crashes each year in Minnesota, there’s growing concern the technology packed into squad cars is creating its own hazard.

“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 who’s now a professor at Washington State University in Spokane working on a first-of-its-kind national study on distracted police officers.

After examining hundreds of crash reports since 2010 and reviewing several hours of police squad car videos, MPR News and KARE 11 found 61 crashes in four years where crash investigators said distracted driving by the officer was a factor. More than half the time, the officer was distracted by something inside the squad car, such as a cell phone or computer.

Outside distractions — officers taking their eyes off the road to do their job, identifying a driver not wearing a seatbelt or looking at a suspect vehicle — were noted in many other crashes.

The average police officer drives thousands of miles more than the average driver and the number of crashes involving distracted police officers is still relatively low. Still, cops acknowledge the tech wedged into the front seat is making safety harder. Imagine juggling radios, phones, squad computers that give officers important information and fast communication with dispatchers, all while trying to patrol the streets, looking out for suspicious activity or someone who needs help.

The modern police vehicle is a “mobile office,” said Brooklyn Park Deputy Police Chief Mark Bruley.

His officers are trained to not take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds at a time. His department has also moved up the squad computer’s position in the front console of police vehicles and set it closer to eye level to help officers keep their eyes up and on the road.

Brooklyn Park also requires officers to go through defensive driving training where officers are tested on their ability to deal with distractions and when two officers are in the squad car together, one drives while the other operates the technology. The department, however, doesn’t ban officers from using cell phones or computers while driving.


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