13 INVESTIGATES: Laptops causing wrecks for Alabama officers - WVTM-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Laptops causing wrecks for Alabama officers

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ANNISTON, AL -

With cell phones, 800 megahertz radios and laptop computers law enforcement officers have more technology at their fingertips than ever before these days.

Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson started fighting crime back in 1975.

"In fact, most guys did not have a radio, a commercial radio in their car," Sheriff Amerson recalled.

However, with the added technology, come added driving hazards.

The temptation to check a suspect's background while driving can be quite tempting for an officer.

Sergeant Steven Jarrett says they train their state troopers to keep their eyes on the road.

"The mobile data terminal or computers inside the vehicle, those should only be used while the vehicle is stopped," Sergeant Jarrett pointed out.

How well are officers across Alabama following that guideline?     

We decided to find out for ourselves.

So we requested a list of every officer-caused crash in Alabama over the last three years where an electronic-device distraction was a factor. 

We found during that time there were 156 accidents caused by a distracted officer, compared to more than 36,447 for all distracted drivers.

Of those distracted-officer crashes, 33 cite an electronic device as a factor, compared to about 5,837 for the whole state.

However, from a percentage standpoint, electronic-device involved crashes are higher for officers.

About 21 percent of their distracted crashes were caused by electronic devices compared to 16 percent for all distracted drivers.

"Police officers are human beings.  They make mistakes.  They get distracted and with these electronic communication devices are very tempting to use in the workplace.  So it does not surprise me at all," reacted Sergeant Jarrett.

To take our investigation even further, we obtained the report for every single one of those 33 officer-caused crashes which involved an electronic device distraction.

In-vehicle laptops contributed to 36 percent of the crashes.

Police radio distractions caused another third.

Cell phones led to 12 percent of the accidents, while the rest of the crashes were blamed on various other devices.

We also requested dash camera footage from nearly a dozen law enforcement agencies whose officers were involved in the crashes we found.

Only Tuscaloosa Police was able to comply with our request.

In fact, the Tuscaloosa Police report stated, "the accident was captured on Driver 1's in car video camera".        

According to the accident report, the Tuscaloosa Police Officer turned right onto Greensboro Avenue near 9th Court. 

The report states the officer looked down to press a button on his laptop as he approached a Buick LaSabre stopped in front of him.

When he finally noticed the car it was too late for him to stop and he rear-ended the vehicle at nearly 20 miles per hour.

The report went on to say the victim in the other car, "was cleared by rescue and...did not need to be transported to the hospital."

Three of those 33 crashes were caused by distracted Calhoun County Deputies.

The reports blame a GPS, a police radio and a laptop.

Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson says they have a strict policy against deputies typing on their laptops while driving.

We asked what the consequences were for a deputy that violates the department's police of using mobile date unit while driving.

He replied, "If the person has a great driving record and they haven't had any other problems and they were found to be doing that, first time it might be a counseling session, it might be a written reprimand."

"If we have a person who has had complaints about their driving, they've had other wrecks and things that show that they are not operating as safely as they should, they can be much more serious and in fact they could be terminated," he continued.

Sheriff Amerson says his deputies undergo extensive driving training every year, which includes a driving simulator, much like the one used at the Department of Public Safety's training center in Selma.

Sergeant Steve Jarrett says DPS trains about 100 officers from around the state at the center.

The device simulates real driving distractions, like radio traffic and vehicles which pull out in front of you during a pursuit.

"That allows us to expose trainees to the task of driving the vehicle and multi-tasking using the police radio, focusing on your surroundings and doing different tasks while safely operating the vehicle," Sergeant Jarrett said.

There is new technology which could down on crashes caused by officers' in-vehicle laptops.

Fort Wayne, Indiana Police are implementing a device called Archangel II.

It prevents an officer's ability to enter data on the computer if they are driving faster than 15 miles per hour.

"You can have a policy saying you will not type enter information while driving.  But if it is right there, you're probably going to do it.  I mean it is just human.  This device takes the human equation out of it," pointed out Captain Paul Smith with Fort Wayne Police.

Amerson believes the driving training his deputies receive is enough for now.

In fact, they started using the simulator about three years ago.

All three of those crashes we mentioned happened back in 2010.

"We are not exempt from the responsibility of safe driving.  And that's the way we look at it, is if you can't get to the call you can't help anyone," Sheriff Amerson concluded.

That includes the rest of us who need that help because we could not put the phone down and keep our own eyes on the road.

Captain Smith with Fort Wayne Police tells me those devices which limit an officer's ability to type on the computer while driving cost about $200 per vehicle.

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