Driven to distraction


by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and Photojournalist DEREK RASOR

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

Posted on December 12, 2013 at 11:36 PM

Updated Friday, Dec 13 at 10:06 AM

AUSTIN -- The KVUE Defenders has uncovered central Texas law enforcement causing car crashes while driving distracted, but not using available technology that could reduce it.

Louis Olivier knows the dangerous consequences all too well. In May 2010, an Austin Police officer ran a stop sign and hit the 78-year-old motorcyclist. According to police, the officer was using his computer while driving when he ran the stop sign.

"My bike was in pieces. I was lying on my back. My leg was one way and my bone was sticking out," said Olivier.

Three and a half years later, he’s still suffering. He now walks with a cane and has undergone 14 surgeries.

Since Olivier's accident, the KVUE Defenders discovered 47 Austin police officers were found at fault for distracted driving-related crashes, some while on their computers.

It happens at other police departments, too. In February, a Williamson County deputy struck a Hummer and flipped his cruiser. According to the crash report, the deputy "glanced at his computer" just before the crash.

"There's a lot of danger while driving fast and being on your computer. We try to train not to do that," said Sergeant Craig Gripentrog, a traffic enforcement supervisor with the Williamson County sheriff's office.

Gripentrog said police need to use their computers while driving to respond to serious calls.

"If we're going on a call, we need to be able to get our updates. So, when the situation is changing at the scene, we're aware of it before we pull up, and now it's a more hostile scene before we got dispatched," said Gripentrog.

The KVUE Defenders found there is technology that would stop officers from using it, but most central Texas law enforcement agencies aren't using it. One of the new technologies is computer software called Arch Angel II. Once installed onto an officer's computer, the program prohibits drivers from using the computer once the vehicle reaches a specific speed.

Fort Wayne, Ind. is the first police department in the country to use it. The police chief said officers can still read information on the computer, but officers can't use the keyboard or mouse.

"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," said Chief Rusty York.

While some departments, like Williamson County, are considering using similar technology, Austin Police said it’s not for them.

Sergeant Stephen Fleming is head of the technology unit at Austin Police. He said the department didn't test the Arch Angel II, but similar devices it did check out allowed officers to override the software.

"If you need to take a quick look, you just hit the key button. It's just going to pop up, and you're still going to read the information," said Fleming.

Olivier said he not only believes Austin should reconsider, he argued that the technology should be state law.

Arch Angel II was created in 2012 and has sold 800 units to about 15 law enforcement agencies across the country, including two in north Texas. The creators said they're so confident the product works, they would be willing to give Austin’s Police Department a free demo.