LOS ANGELES COUNTY, CA In an effort to reduce distracted driving, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials have implemented a new policy that significantly curbs the use of in-car computers, authorities said.
The policy, which was formalized late last month, contains the department’s first explicit restrictions on such devices and comes a little more than a 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 new policy of the country’s largest sheriff’s agency requires that radios be used as “the primary tool of communication” while vehicles are moving and eliminates the use of in-car computers for administrative tasks.
“The significance is to reduce the danger to the public, predominantly, and the danger to our own deputies that are posed by distracted driving and distracting devices,” said Sgt. Albert Schauberger, corrective actions sergeant at the department’s risk management bureau.
Employees cannot use their computer while driving a county vehicle unless the communication is urgent or necessary for officer safety and radio traffic prevents its timely transmission or unless it’s to hit one button to send status updates such as “en-route” or “acknowledge,” according to the new policy.
The in-car computer should be used as a last resort, such as when a deputy is facing an emergency and there’s another serious incident already being broadcast on the radio channel, and not out of convenience since it’s more distracting than a radio, Schauberger said.
“If there’s no other means to communicate and in case of emergency, then (the in-car computer) should be used because it’s all you have left,” he said.
In addition, personnel cannot use their mobile digital computers for administrative tasks, such as clearing calls, updating logs, typing, sending or reading administrative or nonurgent messages while driving, the policy states.
However, a union leader argues that the new policy leaves deputies who are trying to carry out their duties unduly vulnerable to discipline.
If department officials truly want deputies to not use their in-car computers, “they would put a lock out on the computer so that it wouldn’t be operated while it’s moving,” said Don “Jeff” Steck, president of the Association for the Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. “I believe they want the deputy to continue to use the (mobile digital computer) but put the onus of any failures on the deputy as opposed to the system.”
Steck said he’s also concerned that the department does not have a sufficient number of dispatchers to handle the shift to heavier radio usage.
However, Schauberger said radio personnel were involved in the 50-plus member internal committee that helped create the new distracted driving guidelines and have “assured us that (the ability to handle increased radio traffic) was not an issue.”
Sheriff’s officials are also still exploring long-term proposals, such as shutting down many computer functions while the vehicle is in motion and using heads-up displays to keep deputies eyes on the road more often, Schauberger said.
The new policy’s emphasis on radio and the one-button push is “likely to dramatically reduce the driving-while-typing problem that is everyone’s nightmare,” said Bryan Vila, a professor at Washington State University’s Health Sciences Campus in Spokane who has studied the issue of distracted driving among law enforcement, via email.
The policy is “consistent with (the) best scientific evidence” and allows officers discretion in responding to emergencies, he said.
Eric Bruins, policy and planning director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, was pleased by the move.
“Anything that encourages deputies to keep their eyes on the road helps make all of us safer, whether we’re cycling, walking or driving,” Bruins said via email. “We are grateful that the Sheriff’s Department is taking distracted driving seriously and look forward to evaluating the success of these new policies.”
Olin, a prominent entertainment attorney, was fatally struck by Wood in the bicycle lane on Mulholland Highway in the afternoon of Dec. 8, 2013. 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. Olin’s wife, Louise, and their two sons filed a wrongful death suit in July against the county, the sheriff’s department and Wood.
The Los Angeles 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.