Are police behind the wheel as distracted as the rest of us?
Between cellphone calls, incoming texts, GPS navigation, onboard "infotainment" systems and plain old car stereos, it's no wonder the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the amount of distraction for drivers today "creates enormous potential for deaths and injuries on U.S. roads."
Now imagine if all those distractions weren't things you had the choice to ignore.
That's the challenge police officers face when patrolling our streets while surrounded by radios, dashboard cameras, body cameras, laptop computers, radar guns and other technology needed to do their jobs.
And it's one reason, some suspect, for the growing number of officers killed in single-vehicle crashes.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund's annual report, 14 officers were killed in single-vehicle crashes in 2017, up from 11 in 2016. Single-vehicle crashes accounted for 42 percent of all deadly accidents, which otherwise were down from the previous year.
Among the 14 was Bloomingdale officer Raymond Murrell, who died Jan. 19, 2017, while responding to a crime in progress. In Murrell's case, investigators believe bad weather was the primary cause of the crash.
Stephen James, an assistant research professor at Washington State University, has extensively studied distracted and fatigued driving by police officers. In one study, the driving skills of 80 veteran patrol officers were observed under four conditions: rested and undistracted by technology, rested and distracted, fatigued and undistracted, and fatigued and distracted.
"We found that driving was worse when fatigued, but the negative effect of distraction was even greater," he said. "And when they were distracted and fatigued at the same time, it was even worse than that."
James notes that for every officer killed in a crash involving a police vehicle, two civilians are killed. "It's a public safety issue as well as an officer safety issue," he said
Is there a solution?
James said there are steps departments can take to reduce officers' distractions behind the wheel.
An obvious one is returning to the days when two officers per car was standard. That would allow one officer to drive and a partner to deal with everything else.
Other measures include technology that will shut down when a car reaches certain speeds, installing "heads up" displays, or designing the interior of squad vehicles to provide officers with easier, less distracting access to equipment.
Of course, such measures aren't inexpensive, and many communities are struggling just to keep up with their police department's existing needs.
"It's a really tricky question," James said. "I don't think it's hopeless, but more needs to be done."
Closer to home, Oak Brook Police Chief James Kruger said law enforcement leaders are aware of the potential for distraction in patrol cars.
"We're mindful of it, and most have policies against use while in motion," said Kruger, who also serves as president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.
Safe driving also is a key element of Below 100, a national campaign to influence law enforcement culture and eliminate preventable line-of-duty deaths and injuries, he said.
Near all-time lows
The good news from the memorial fund's annual report is the 128 officers who died in the line of duty last year was the fewest since 2013, and the second-lowest total in 40 years. The Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks on-duty deaths slightly differently, reported 125 deaths in 2017, its lowest figure since 1958.
Traffic-related deaths continue to be the most common, accounting for 47 in 2017. Shootings claimed the lives of 44 officers, down from 66 in 2016. Other causes include job-related medical events, such as heart attacks (16), and helicopter and boating accidents (two each). And five officers drowned while working during hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
Besides Murrell, three other officers died in the line of duty in Illinois last year: Rockford officer Jaimie Cox, killed Nov. 5 when intentionally hit by a vehicle; Chicago officer Bernie Domagala, who died from complications of a 1988 shooting; and Illinois State Police Trooper Ryan Matthew Albin, killed in a June 28 crash northwest of Champaign.
Chris Cosgriff, executive director of the Officer Down Memorial Page, said the lower figures aren't necessarily a sign police are operating in a less hostile climate. He said better training, safer vehicles and equipment, and advancements in medical care play a big role.
Delivering a baby when you're not a trained medical professional obviously would be daunting under any circumstances.
But especially when it's your daughter in labor and she's in the back seat of your Dodge Caravan.
Aurora police gave public props this week to Adam Afshar, a 911 dispatcher who talked such a caller through a delivery Dec. 18.
When you listen to the five-minute call (you can listen online with this column at dailyherald.com), you understand why. Even though the caller was worked up, as might be expected, Afshar remained composed. After getting info on where the Caravan was, he used his Emergency Medical Dispatch Protocol playbook to guide the caller through a healthy birth.
"Outstanding job, Adam, or do we say, 'Dr. Adam?!'" police posted on Facebook.
State police stats
It was a busy 2017 for the Illinois State Police troopers who patrol suburban highways.
According to stats released Thursday by State Police District 15 - which includes Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties - troopers wrote 55,796 tickets last year and 49,126 warnings.
Speeding was by far the main cause, with troopers issuing more than 25,000 citations and 15,500 warnings to leadfoots. They also reported 1,346 DUI arrests, 2,852 distracted driving tickets and 689 child-restraint citations.
Troopers also assisted 25,662 motorists, conducted 13,137 truck safety inspections and investigated 8,926 crashes.
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