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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
There is more technology in a squad car than ever. The latest for city cruisers will keep officers from inputting data on their computers while driving.
Editorials

Archangel in a cruiser

If you have difficulty fighting the temptation to drive while texting, imagine driving with a laptop ideally placed to make it easier to use while you’re behind the wheel. City police officials are so concerned about that temptation, which police officers face in their squad cars, that they are preparing to make it impossible for officers to compute while driving – at least more than 15 mph.

The police are using nearly $100,000 from seized drug money to buy a locally invented device that will prohibit police officers from inputting data on their squad car computers once the car hits 15 mph. In some ways, the police command is taking preventive action that will make officers – and other motorists – safer. But the city is also acting to reduce liability when an officer is in an accident.

“We are noticing an increase in accidents involving driver distractions,” Police Chief Rusty York said. The police are not immune to such distractions, and reports of officers in accidents elsewhere in the nation while using their squad car computers captured the attention of local police.

A public safety administration class at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota studied 378 crashes involving police cars in Minnesota from 2006 to 2010. They found that 14 percent were caused by distracted police officers and half of those – about 25 – were distracted by on-board computers.

A Dallas TV station looked into police car accidents in Texas and identified at least 70 wrecks over two years caused by police officers who were distracted. That investigation came after an officer in Austin, Texas, ran a stop sign while using a computer and hit a former tennis pro on a motorcycle, causing serious injuries. Austin police paid an unspecified settlement to the cycle rider.

In addition to improving safety, Fort Wayne police officials understand the potential liability when an officer is in a crash.

“You can have policies in place for this, but if there is an accident, how do you prove the driver wasn’t entering data?” York said. With the new device – dubbed Archangel II – there will be no doubt.

Though the Archangel II will prevent officers from typing or entering data, the in-car computer screens will still display GPS while the officer is on the way to a call, as well as updates from dispatchers.

The product began with conversations between a city police officer and Don Ross, an executive with the Sherman Group and Deister Concentrator. Ross contacted a software expert, and that led to the device. They and other principals created a local company SRRS LLC, just after the first of the year. Devices will go in all 360 city squad cars, and the company hopes to market the product to other police and public-service agencies. While city police decided to set the limit at 15 mph, agencies can set other speeds – or prohibit computer use if the vehicle is moving at all.

Computers are not the only high-tech devices in police cars, which often include dashboard cameras, plus various radios and telephones. But computers can be particularly tempting to use. In February, for example, a sheriff’s officer in Tarrant County, Texas – which includes Fort Worth and Arlington – ran a red light while reading a message on his computer and struck an SUV.

“We’ve got all this technology in the car,” York said, “yet we say don’t use the computer while you’re moving.”

All the city’s squad cars are scheduled to be fitted with the device by Oct. 1.

City police are right to take steps to limit distracted driving by officers before it becomes a problem here. And in the tradition of Fort Wayne innovation and ingenuity, creators of the device may well find a nationwide market and build up a new local business.

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