The temptation is always there — the smartphone on the passenger seat beside you buzzing and pinging with the urgency of your life’s problems when you should have your eyes on the road.
Even if you resist, there are drivers around you who have succumbed to the screen’s siren song. The guy in front of you who doesn’t go when the light turns green. The woman who weaves between lanes.
And the cop in the car next to you, who could write you a ticket for violating the state law against texting while driving? He is grappling with the same dilemma of whether and when to pay attention to the screens that have taken over our lives. Except the risk-to-reward assessment of checking those screens is less cut-and-dry when the screen is a tool for protecting public safety. And law enforcement agencies nationwide are scrambling to figure out where to draw the line.
“Mobile digital computers,” typically mounted on the center console with the screen near eye level, have transformed policing with their wealth of real-time information. Police officers use them for everything from running license plates to instant messaging to keeping track of a suspect’s description.
But the distraction is especially hazardous at agencies such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, where many deputies patrol without a partner beside them.
A little more than a year after a sheriff’s deputy who was typing on his computer missed a curve and fatally struck a bicyclist, the department has tightened its rules on the use of in-car computers.
Typing behind the wheel is not illegal for law enforcement officers, as it is for civilian drivers in California. But under the revised policy enacted Feb. 25, L.A. County deputies may use their computers only when they are pulled over or stopped at a light.
Exceptions include emergencies or when a deputy hits a single button such as “acknowledge” or “en route.” The car radio, not the computer, should be the primary means of communication, the policy states — a throwback to an older technology.
Other law enforcement agencies also are grappling with how to balance fast and easy access to critical information with the risks of distracted driving. Some leave safety judgments largely up to the patrol officer, while others resemble L.A. County in curtailing the use of the in-car computer while the car is in motion.
“It’s a change from old habits,” said Capt. Timothy Murakami, who is in charge of the department’s Industry Station. “You’ve got to weigh the need to do police work versus your safety and the public’s safety.”
The accident that killed former Napster executive Milton Olin Jr. is an example of an officer getting on the wrong side of that tradeoff.
On Dec. 8, 2013, Deputy Andrew Wood was cruising down Mulholland Highway at about 45 miles an hour. He had just left Calabasas High School after responding to a report of a fire on campus.
A message popped up on Wood’s computer from another deputy, asking whether he had taken care of the situation at the school.
“Yes, I …,” Wood began to type, just as the road curved slightly to the left. Wood kept going straight and slammed into Olin, who was pedaling in the bicycle lane.
Leading up to the fatal crash, Wood had also been texting on a cellphone with his wife. But according to phone records cited in a report by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, he appeared to confine his texting to red lights.
The car’s computer and Wood’s work-related messaging were what distracted him from the road, the report concluded. No criminal charges were filed against Wood, who now works as a courthouse deputy. Olin’s family has filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department.
Bryan Vila, a professor at Washington State University, Spokane, has put police officers in driving simulators to test how they cope with distractions. Just like civilians, they take time to shift from one task to another and are more likely to crash when distracted.
To Vila, who was an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy in the 1970s, the cost-benefit analysis can be stark: “If the bad guy gets away when you didn’t have all the information … that’s better than running into a carful of kids on the way to soccer practice.”
Nationwide, of the 640 vehicle accidents between 1982 and 2008 in which a law enforcement officer was killed, 26 involved “inattentive/careless” behavior by an officer, such as talking, eating or using a phone, according to an analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In three-quarters of the fatal accidents, driver error such as failure to stay in the lane or obey traffic signals was a factor, the analysis said.
In 2013, Los Angeles deputies were found to be at fault in 479 traffic collisions, with 9% of those due to the deputy’s inattention — a rate that has remained fairly constant over the last few years, said Michael Rothans, the assistant sheriff in charge of patrol.
The new written policy is not a drastic departure from the old one, which also emphasized radios over MDCs. But it clarifies that deputies generally should not type messages while their vehicles are in motion.
“What happened was that people gradually moved away from using the radio to using the MDC solely as a way to communicate,” Rothans said. “The radio is there for a reason. It’s safer.”
There are downsides, however, to relying on the airwaves. Dispatchers get tied up and are not always available to handle queries. The radio cannot match the computer’s ability to cough up a bird’s-eye view at the touch of a button, for example by showing a map of where each patrol car is and the calls each is handling. Deputies relying on their radios may end up checking fewer license plates and missing stolen cars or people on the run from the law.
An official with the deputies’ union expressed concern that the new policy would be enforced haphazardly, leaving deputies without clear direction. The union favors removing the temptation altogether with a “lockout” device that would disable the computer above certain speeds, along with an override function for emergencies.
“I’d hate for the administration to say, ‘No, you can’t do this,’ but everybody knows how effective [the computers are], so there’s a wink-wink on the side,” said Derek Hsieh, assistant executive director for the Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.
At the LAPD, distracted driving is not usually a concern because most officers ride two to a car, with one operating the computer while the other drives. Other local police departments, including Pasadena’s and Huntington Park’s, have rules resembling those recently adopted by the Sheriff’s Department.
“We want to make sure it’s a tool, and we also want it to be safe,” said Jorge Cisneros, Huntington Park police chief and president of the L.A. County Police Chiefs’ Assn.
In Long Beach, officers should rely primarily on their in-car computers to avoid taking up valuable radio airtime, the Police Department’s policy states. Still, supervisors tell officers to pull over to read non-emergency messages, and the policy manual may eventually be updated to reflect those instructions, said Deputy Chief Richard Rocchi.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department asks deputies to keep computer use to “an absolute minimum.” Status updates requiring the touch of one button, along with quick glances at addresses or suspect descriptions, are allowed while the vehicle is in motion.
“That is their lifeline,” Lt. Jeffrey Hallock, a department spokesman, said of the computers. “It’s a tool heavily relied on in law enforcement, absolutely — and it needs to be used with discretion.”
On a recent morning in the Orange County city of Stanton, Deputy Ernesto Valdez unhooked his car radio’s microphone. “Two twenty-two,” he said, citing his patrol car number to acknowledge that he was on his way.
As he drove down Dale Street at about 35 miles an hour, he hit the “narrative” button on his computer to call up the details of the case: a woman was moving out of her apartment and feared that her ex-boyfriend would interfere. With the push of another button, he called up the address. Then he clicked the zoom bar to zero in on the location.
In the City of Industry, Deputy Ivan Davanzo was careful to hew to the new L.A. County rules, typing only when stopped at a light.
Hustling to a Bank of America where a forgery suspect was reportedly on the loose, Davanzo ignored the six unread messages flashing red and yellow on his computer screen.
“About a minute out,” he told the dispatcher over the radio as he hung a left.
The suspect had just been apprehended, the dispatcher said. Davanzo pressed onward to see whether the other deputies needed help.
“If you’re too much into this computer, you’re not paying attention to the road, are you?” Davanzo said. “The most dangerous thing you’re doing out here is being behind the wheel.”
Later, Davanzo noticed a woman in a gray Nissan looking down at her cellphone while stopped at a left turn signal. He motioned to her to roll down her window and reprimanded her about the dangers of distracted driving.