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Divided attention: Concern over cops distracted at the wheel increases

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"Cops are some of the most distracted drivers on the road."

Not our words, but the words of the Lino Lakes Police Department, which recently published a blog on Facebook to explain its attempts to reduce the risk of its officers being involved in accidents.

Describing a recent incident in which officers responded to threats made with a knife at a vague location, the department said: "Officers have to divide their attention between driving, looking at directions, and switching channels on their squad radio while driving red lights and sirens."

"Under normal driving conditions, officers are expected to run plates on their in-squad computers, listen to their squad radio, activate radar units, and know where other officers are, and they do this all while driving," it added.

An investigation by KARE 11 and MPR released Thursday found that there were 61 squad car crashes in the last four years in which the officer says they were distracted.

In half of these, MPR notes, the distraction was external – taking an eye off the road to look at a suspect, for example – but the remaining half involved distractions caused by the growing number of electronic devices inside squad cars.

KARE 11 explains that police officers are exempt from distracted driving laws banning drivers from texting, using the internet or emailing while driving, and Brooklyn Park deputy police chief Mark Bruley told the station that with all the other gadgets in the car, cops are driving round in "a mobile office".

The investigation notes that certain police departments have technology designed to reduce distracted driving.

Funding problems

In Lino Lakes, the issue is funding. The department has its own policies in place to deter distracted driving, such as regulation and monitoring of non-official cellphone use, and an upcoming upgrade to its dispatch system.

But these are only stop-gap measures, as the department says:

"We could invest in technology that includes heads up displays, integrated GPS, or put two officers in a squad so one could focus on driving, but these options cost money. ... While this exception [in distracted driving law] allows us to better serve the public, it does not keep us safe. You can help keep everyone safe by devoting 100% of your attention to driving."

Distractions a major cause of fatalities

Distracted or inattentive driving is a factor in one in four crashes in the state every year, causing at least 70 deaths and 350 serious injuries, according to the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety.

And it is younger drivers who are the most likely to be involved, with the U.S. Government's distracted driving website finding that drivers in their 20s make up more than a quarter of distracted drivers in fatal crashes.

The website also states that an estimated 660,000 are using cellphones or other electronic devices while driving at any one time during the day across the United States.

Distractions are not just limited to cellphone use. It can involve changing the radio channel, turning to talk to a passenger, fiddling with GPS systems, or eating or drinking at the wheel.

In August, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety said that distracted driving was the top cause of fatal road crashes up to that point in 2014, according to WCCO.

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