Police car computer changes to cut down on distracted driving




Posted on September 21, 2010 at 5:30 PM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 21 at 9:39 PM

Austin police officers will see changes to their in-car computers starting the end of this week or early next week. Austin Police Department’s Technology Unit hopes the changes cut down on distracted driving accidents by officers, like the one that happened near the North Substation last May. 

As Austin police suspend Officer Damon Dunn for three days with pay for a wreck that seriously injured 74-year-old Louis Olivier, the accident, caught on dashcam video brings up an important issue: driver distraction by police officers. 

“With the crashes, some of the high profile crashes we've had officers on the MDCs [Mobile Data Computers] trying to find other ways they can view the information, cause a lot of times it's not them typing,” Lt. Patrick Cochran, who oversees APD’s Tech Unit, said.  “It's they're just trying to read what's coming across to them while they're trying to get to a call.” 

That was the case with Officer Dunn. Police records show that he was looking at his Mobile Data Computer when he ran the stop sign at Magazine and Lamplight Village in North Austin and hit Olivier who was on a motorcycle.

Lt. Cochran says Senior Police Officer Ryan Huling and others in APD’s Tech Unit are making on-screen display changes to make it easier for officers like Dunn to see their computer screens without taking their eyes off the road.  Changes include bigger, bolder font and quick keys. 

“To run a plate you had to push two buttons,” Lt. Cochran says.  “Now you only have to push one button, which sounds a lot, doesn't sound like much of a change but it is a big change when you're trying to do that.” 

Officers are discouraged from typing while driving. Other changes include an ergonomically correct, swing-out mount that keeps officers from having to lean over to use their computers. 

Despite all of the technological and ergonomic changes, they say many officers seem most excited about a new addition to their patrol cars: cup holders. 

“It's going to be nice for them to not have to worry about that cold drink getting spilled,” Sr. Police Officer Huling says.  “It sounds silly, but we show them the new technology and that's what they care the most about seeing sometimes.”

While the computer display changes begin soon, Austin police will install new mounts on all 563 patrol cars over the course of next year, starting with 40 cars at the Central East Command Station in January. 

Austin Police tells KVUE that officers were involved in 741 crashes between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2010.  Officers were found at-fault in nearly half of those crashes.  Nearly 20 percent of the officer-involved crashes were caused by distracted driving.  Officers were using their in-car computers in more than a third of the distracted driving crashes.