LASD may limit car computer use to ease distracted driving
Concerns over distracted driving have prompted Los Angeles County sheriff's officials to propose dramatically curbing use of in-car computers
By Brenda Gazzar
LOS ANGELES — Concerns over distracted driving have prompted Los Angeles County sheriff's officials to propose dramatically curbing use of in-car computers.
The agency's assistant sheriffs last week approved a series of far-reaching policy recommendations that, if implemented, would be the department's first explicit restrictions on such devices.
The move follows months of deliberation by an internal committee and comes one year after sheriff's Deputy Andrew Wood fatally struck cyclist Milton Olin Jr. on Mulholland Highway in Calabasas while typing on his in-car computer.
While stopping short of banning all in-car computer use, the draft policy mandates that radio be "the primary tool" of communication while the vehicle is moving and would eliminate the use of in-car computers for administrative tasks.
"We hope to ... address aggressively the issue of distracted driving and return the focus of the drivers back to the motor vehicles," said Lt. Patrick Hunter, the corrective action lieutenant for the department's Risk Management Bureau. "We think the deputies will be safer, that they will be better, more defensive drivers, and in the long run we think it's safer for the motoring public."
Distracted drivers of police cars, fire trucks and ambulances were to blame in collisions that killed three Southland residents, including Olin, and injured about 140 others in California in 2012 and 2013, according to local reporting and recent data from the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System that is run by the California Highway Patrol. Two of the three fatalities were caused by L.A. County and San Bernardino
County sheriff's deputies who were distracted, at least in part, by their patrol car computers.
The Sheriff's Department manual prohibits cellphone use among employees driving county vehicles "absent extenuating circumstances," but there are currently no explicit limitations or safety guidelines for in-car computer use.
Under the draft policy, information critical to a call, excluding victims' identities, would also be sent out via radio rather than by patrol car computer since a field deputy in a stressful situation is already "sufficiently distracted" to have to read updates on a computer screen. The recommendations, which were developed by more than 50 employees from throughout the department, next go to the sheriff's unions for their consideration.
While the L.A. sheriff's department's effort has been ongoing, Olin's death last year "brought this into focus for us," Hunter said, "and helped us refine some of our thinking in terms of distracted driving."
Olin, of Woodland Hills, was a prominent entertainment attorney and former A&M Records and Napster executive. He was fatally struck by Wood in the bicycle lane on Mulholland Highway in the early afternoon of Dec. 8. Wood, a 16-year department veteran who had been returning from a fire call at Calabasas High School, was responding to another deputy's inquiry on his computer about whether the fire investigation had been completed when the collision occurred.
At least one union leader has strong concerns about the draft policy. Mark Claahsen, vice president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, argued that switching communications from in-car computers to radio exchanges would hamper deputies' ability to do their jobs well.
"The biggest concern is the limitations of radio communication during an emergency call that requires updates for deputies responding to a scene," Claahsen said in an email. "Our (mobile digital computers) provide address information, GPS mapping and officer location information that is simply too complicated to communicate over the radio."
Claahsen argued the restrictions would curb deputies' ability to do proactive policing because they are constantly running license plates on their computers while on the road, which helps locate stolen cars.
Rather than limiting the use of in-car computers, better and more extensive driver safety training as well as smarter technology, such as heads-up displays available today on some newer model cars, should be considered, Claahsen said.
Under the draft policy, a "back-to-basics course focusing on 'unplugged' law enforcement" would also be created and implemented so that deputies learn to rely on nonelectronic tools such as radio, Thomas Bros. maps, route and area familiarization as well as suspicious circumstance recognition.
Hunter said there will be meetings with sheriff's unions to determine how the proposed policy would affect their members.
Bryan Vila, a professor at Washington State University's Health Sciences Campus in Spokane and a former L.A. County sheriff's deputy, said he thinks the department is doing a good job thinking about the problem of distracted driving. He called the draft policy reasonable and noted it had some flexibility.
"Although almost every state has an anti-distracted driving law, police officers and other emergency vehicle operators are always exempted from those laws, but they are not exempted from the laws of physics, and they crash much more often when they're distracted," he said.
From his own preliminary research involving law enforcement officers driving a simulated police sedan, Vila found that 18 out of 20 collisions, or 90 percent, occurred when the officer was engaged in a simple distraction task intended to simulate the use of a patrol car computer. Distraction was found to be even more dangerous when officers were fatigued. Allowing deputies to experience these risks for themselves in a simulator would help drive home these important lessons, particularly since more on-duty officers are generally killed in traffic collisions than as victims of felonious acts, said Vila, the study's principal investigator.
Meanwhile, Olin's family, friends and members of the cycling community will gather at 9 a.m. Sunday for a 9-mile ride on Mulholland Highway that will start at Las Virgenes Road and reach the crash site in the 22400 block of Mulholland. There, they will join others for a vigil marking the one-year anniversary of Olin's death.
"This past year has been a long hard journey for me and my family," wife Louise Olin said in an email. "A memorial bike ride seemed like a natural thing to do. It is important to me that all of us who loved Milt or who have been affected by this tragedy come together to share in Milt's memory."
Olin and her two sons filed a wrongful death suit in July against the county, the sheriff's department and Wood.
The L.A. County District Attorney's Office announced in August that it would not file charges against Wood since he acted within the course and scope of his duties when he typed while driving. An internal sheriff's probe launched to determine whether Wood violated department policies is not yet complete, a spokeswoman said.
Wood transferred from patrol to court services shortly after the incident but had made the request more than a year before, a county spokesman has said.
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