Distracted driving a problem for police officers

Published: Feb. 4, 2014 at 5:51 PM EST|Updated: May. 27, 2014 at 4:51 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - In Kentucky distracted driving causes more accidents than drinking and driving. In 2013, Kentucky State Police statistics show there were 7,164 collisions involving distracted driving, while 4,982 involved alcohol.

Now, a WAVE 3 News Troubleshooter investigation uncovers the people enforcing the laws on distracted driving, don't always have to follow them.

"These are just tools for the trade," said Lt. Michael O'Neil, training commander for the Louisville Metro Police Department.

Police officers are exempt from laws that ban the use of mobile devices behind the wheel, as long as they are using them for the job.

Forget about texting and driving. How about typing on a computer and driving?

"I can take you in here and show you some troopers that can sit in this automobile and never take their eye off that number 45 on the front of the post," said Indiana State Police Sgt. Jerry Goodin while sitting inside his cruiser. "And they can sit here and type and send a full length dissertation on something and never look at the screen."

These days, it is not a radio or even a cell phone that's an officers primary life line to base. It's an in car laptop computer, known as a mobile data terminal, or MDT.

"If you're going 75 miles and hour down the expressway probably not a good idea to use the MDT," said Lt. O'Neil.

But O'Neil said there are scenarios where an officer would have to use the onboard computer while driving that fast, like if an officer needed to run the license plate of a suspected stolen vehicle.

The MDT also provides information on runs and access to critical information about suspects. During the interview, Lt. O'Neil drove up on an officer who checked a drivers name on the MDT in his cruiser during a traffic stop. That name came back with outstanding arrest warrants.

The officer then pulled the description of the wanted man from the MDT and found out police were actually looking for someone else with the same name. So he let that driver go.

"This is a tool that helps us be better police officers, to keep the community safer," O'Neil said driving away from the scene.

The challenge is finding ways to use mobile devices safely while driving. With all the technology at officers fingertips these days, there is more to focus on behind the wheel than ever before and distractions can get officers in trouble.

A review of 256 accidents involving LMPD officers in 2013 revealed 34 percent were the fault of the police officer.

Using open records requests the WAVE 3 Troubleshooter Department obtained video and pictures that prove the point. In one dash cam video taken from an LMPD cruiser, the police car rear ends a huge box truck that was stopped in traffic. Another video shows a cruiser that tried to change lanes and pulled right into the path of another car causing an accident.

Photographs released by the police department show another cruiser that ended up in a snowy ditch even though the road itself appeared mostly dry.

It was unclear from the accident reports if the officers were using mobile devices at the time of those accidents. But dozens of officers were disciplined by Police Chief Steve Conrad for causing accidents in 2013. Of those officers, 64 received written reprimands and were required to get additional driver's training and one officer was suspended. Dozens of others are still waiting to find out how they'll be disciplined for at fault accidents.

"We are held accountable," Lt. O'Neil said. "If you have a wreck and it's your fault you're going be dinged for it."

The goal, O'Neil said, is using all the tools of the trade, while making sure not to create a problem trying to get to one.

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