Police driving: New tech for a safer ride

Improved driver training would be better, but improved safety devices can help


Cops are generally concerned with hazards offered by the criminal community. No one wants to be shot, stabbed, or bludgeoned to death, and most officer survival training is geared toward preventing that.

But we should probably fear our cars more than those other elements, because more cops die in accidents and intentional vehicular assaults than from any other source of danger.

There is technology in the pipeline or already available that can help reduce the number of these fatalities.

Training Issues
Most Americans believe themselves to be above-average drivers — a statistical impossibility — and cops are no exception. Every cop gets some training in emergency vehicle operation, but unless you’re a member of a state police or highway patrol, it’s likely that training wasn’t very intense or encompassing of all the road hazards you face.

At least a third of U.S. cops deal with icy road conditions for part of the year, but it’s rare to have a regional police academy equipped with a skid pad or a skid simulator vehicle. This equipment is expensive and high-maintenance, and training is usually the first victim of budget cuts.

Police driving instructors teach collision avoidance with the time-honored drill of approaching three lanes of traffic and calling “one,” “two,” or “three” at the last second to indicate which lane the driver is to use.

Chances are, the last time you did that was while you were in the academy, which might have been a long time ago. It’s a perishable skill.

Nissan is developing an “Autonomous Emergency Steering System” that can take over when the driver doesn’t react to avoid a collision. The system uses three radar antennas and five laser scanners mounted around the car to monitor the surrounding landscape for hazards and look for clear areas.

When it detects an imminent collision hazard, an alarm sounds in the passenger compartment, and lights on the dash indicate the direction the vehicle should be steered to avoid the wreck. If the driver doesn’t react in time, the system takes over and steers the car in that direction.

Driver Distraction
Most states have enacted laws prohibiting driver’s use of cell phones without a hands-free device (and sometimes even with a hands-free device) while the vehicle is in operation. Public safety vehicles are sometimes exempt from these laws, but it still irritates Joe Citizen when they see a cop talking on a cell phone while going down the road, knowing they would get a ticket for doing the same thing.

Most new cars either come with Bluetooth devices that automatically pair with cell phones in the car and send the conversation to the car’s audio system, but these are not common in police vehicles. Maybe they should be. If your car doesn’t have one, there are Bluetooth speaker/microphone devices that clip to the sun visor and provide the same functionality.

Your car may not be quite as crowded as this guy’s, but it’s likely there’s not much room left for the driver and passenger. 

Cops already have more distractions than most other drivers, with radar displays, mobile computer screens, and radio consoles all competing for the driver’s attention in addition to whatever non-electronic issues he has to consider.

Most agencies have a policy that forbids operation of the car’s computer by the driver while the car is in motion, but most cops ignore this and drive into trees anyway.

Some agencies are installing systems like this that disable the keyboard and either blank or freeze the screen when the vehicle is moving.

I suspect those will be unpopular, but so are funerals.

Rear-seat passengers (e.g. prisoners) are probably more at risk in collisions than are the cops up front. There aren’t any air bags back there, and the prisoners tend to be resistant to wearing seat belts.

If you can get the prisoner to stay secured in the seat belt, an innovation from Mercedes may be helpful with the lack of air bags. This seat belt incorporates an air bag into the strap, expanding when sensors detect a collision and cushioning the impact.

Experience tells me that:

1.) Inventions from Mercedes take a long time to make it into American police cars, and
2.) A device like this will be destroyed by combative prisoners the first week it’s in the field

Until, and even after we see this tech incorporated into your car, keep your eyes on the road, slow down, have a realistic assessment of your driving skills, and see to it your name isn’t added to The Wall.

Be safe and be well.

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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