Policing the Police on Those Distracting In-Car Computers

Fort Wayne moves to limit when officers can type and stare at their on-board screens.

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Flickr/JSmith Photo

It's hard enough to resist picking up the phone or glancing at a text when you're behind the wheel, but imagine you have a laptop computer – with internet access, no less – mounted to your dashboard. That's what driving is like for most police officers, whose squad cars are often equipped with these tools of the trade. And for all the help computers surely provide to officers, they're also a tempting and dangerous distraction, especially when the person behind the wheel is the one charged with keeping city streets safe.

So it's probably a smart move for the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana, to install a new system in the police department's squad cars that automatically disables the computer's keyboard and touchscreen when the car is moving more than 15 miles per hour.

It may be the first time this technology has been used in the U.S., according to Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York, who described the new system to Indiana's News Center:

"We wanted to develop a system that wouldn't inhibit officers from utilizing their equipment any more than possible. But just like we tell everybody, you shouldn't text and drive. There's a reason for that. And this is a way that we can better protect our officers," York says.

Police cars are increasingly being seen as mobile offices, where officers can log into databases, run vehicle registration and license numbers and even log into remote surveillance cameras. But of course, being able to do all this while driving kinda takes the safety out of public safety. And the potential distraction is growing.

About 75 percent of squad cars in the U.S. were equipped with computers in 2010, a figure that's likely increased since. And while there aren't any specific statistics on police crashes resulting from computer distraction, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence. A 2011 analysis of police crashes in Minnesota found that 14 percent of all crashes were caused by distracted police officers, and half were due to being distracted by in-car computers. An investigation in Texas found distracted driving caused at least 70 emergency vehicle accidents over the past two years.

Drivers in general are 23 times more likely to crash when they're reading or sending text messages, according to research [PDF] from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Fort Wayne reportedly hasn't experienced any computer-related crashes, and it's hoping to keep it that way.

The idea, though, is not especially new. As commenter Evan Ford notes, "When I worked at FedEX we had 'black out' units on our computers. As soon as the vehicle started a forward motion, the screen turned off. This was back in the '80s."

Kudos to Fort Wayne PD for catching up. Maybe it's time for others to follow.

Photo courtesy Flickr user JSmith Photo

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.