Local 2 Investigates: Police crashes caused by distracted driving

HPD officers blame computers in patrol car for accidents

By Jace Larson - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Computers inside patrol cars are to blame for at least 18 accidents involving Houston Police Department officers in the last three years, Local 2 Investigates has learned after asking the City of Houston to total up numbers.

"It's the most dangerous thing you can do while driving -- multi-tasking," said Keith Wenzel, a former police sergeant and distracted driving instructor who teaches police departments across the country. 

He says asking an officer to use a computer, or MDT, while driving is unsafe. Wenzel is in favor of departments creating policies that restrict an officer's ability to use a computer at certain speeds.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland disagrees that restrictions should be put into place. In-car computers can give officers responding to emergencies up-to-date information such as suspect description and location. Such information is not always able to be aired over the radio.

"Viewing information on a computer screen to me is no different that the slight distraction that one may have checking your speedometer," McClelland told Local 2 investigative reporter Jace Larson. "There is no way that I could put a policy in place where an officer is prohibited from looking at his computer screen."

At first, the police department and open records department told Local 2 Investigates it could not provide specific numbers or investigative paperwork about accidents involving officers distracted by an in-car computer.

However, the Houston Police Department did agree to total up the accident numbers itself.

HPD numbers show only about three percent of the 570 officer at-fault accidents in the past three years occurred due to, or partly due to, an officer's admission of using the laptop computer.

The Houston Police Department does not have a policy restricting officers from using their computer while driving.

"Many times, until a department has a major catastrophe happen, they are hesitant to change policies," Wenzel said.

Other Texas cities have changed policies after accidents. Fort Worth, Arlington and Austin do not fully restrict using police computers while driving, but discourage their use in some situations.

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officer's Union, says critical crime fighting and officer safety information comes across an officer's computer screen.

"Anyone who is saying that the MDT is too much of a distraction to be in that vehicle at certain times would be doing a disservice to us if they remove or shut those things down," Hunt said.

What do you think? How big of a problem is distracted driving in general? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this story.

If you have a tip for investigative reporter Jace Larson, email him at jlarson@kprc.com or interact with him on Facebook and Twitter.

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