Police Chiefs Mull Distracted-Driving Policies

NBC 5 investigation on officers using computers while driving draws national attention from police group

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBC 5 investigation into crashes caused by officers using dash-mounted computers while driving draws from attention a national police group and departments across the country. (Published Wednesday, Jan 30, 2013)

    An NBC 5 investigation into the distractions caused by police computers in cars is now gaining national attention. And a prominent group of police leaders is pledging new nationwide guidelines to help police prevent crashes caused by officers driving distracted.

    In the last six months, the NBC 5 Investigates team reported on crashes caused by police officers who are looking at their computers instead of the road.

    After the original stories aired in Dallas-Fort Worth, NBC5 Investigates worked with "NBC Nightly News" to produce a national story using videos and interviews from the Texas reports.

    The story gained the attention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the world's largest organization of police leaders. The IACP recently sent the story to the state police commanders in all 50 states.

    The Missouri State Highway Patrol has made the story mandatory viewing in safety training.

    "I thought it was extremely important for our people to view it," Sgt. William Lowe said.

    All Missouri troopers have to sign off that they've watched it.

    "Showing this and having the other troopers see this footage and the video of these crashes, I think they were pretty taken aback by what can happen in the blink of an eye," Lowe said.

    Col. Mike Edmonson, superintendent of the Louisiana State Police and the head of IACP's division of state police, is now leading a nationwide effort to rethink the way computers are used in police cars.

    "It's not OK when we know it's an unsafe situation, when we know that it's not the right thing," he said. "We've got to be leaders and step up. We got to be different. We got to change the culture and say, 'You know what? Not acceptable.' We got to fix it."

    Working with fellow IACP members, Edmonson plans to create policy guidelines that any police department in the world could use.

    The challenge is to balance the benefits and dangers of the computers, cameras, phones, radios and scanners that have turned police cars into offices on wheels where driving can seem almost secondary.

    "I think we're going to look at what's going on around the country that's successful," Edmonson said. "Whether we look at Fort Worth and what they've done successfully, I think you have to take those things -- those are templates that can be used to move forward."

    Fort Worth's new computer policy, which was implemented after NBC 5 started investigating, gives officers flexibility to key in simple, one-touch responses but prevents them from typing messages while the car is moving.

    Edmonson said typing and driving is not only dangerous, but it also creates a double standard in because police are telling the rest of us not to text and drive.

    "You pull up alongside a police officer, there they are, texting away," he said. "Well, what makes it right? The bottom line, it doesn't make it right."

    At a meeting in San Antonio last week, the Texas Police Chiefs Association told NBC 5 Investigates that it also plans to study the issue in its safety committee.

    It could result in the publication of papers and study materials, the development of training and model policies. The group says it is very early in the process.

    The Texas Police Chiefs Association does not have a model policy to guide Texas police departments. Neither does the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

    A small group of IACP member state police commanders from around the country met last weekend in Louisiana to start looking closer at the issue. They plan to meet again in March and develop recommendations that give police chiefs everywhere a starting point to deal with this.

    They recognize every police department has different technology and different challenges, but they want to make a strong statement about the dangers of distracted driving and give some general guidelines.