DHS Science and Tech directorate studying ways to reduce on-duty police crashes

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Police rushing to an accident are no help if they themselves don’t arrive safely. Yet four in 10 on-duty police officer deaths are the result of car crashes. Now the Science and Technology Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security has launched a research project to analyze the risks, including in-cruiser distractions, in the hopes of reducing these losses. With more details, portfolio manager in the S&T Office of Science and Engineering, Jim Grove spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Grove, good to have you on.

Jim Grove: Good morning.

Tom Temin: Tell us what it is you’re trying to understand here better at Science and Technology?

Jim Grove: Well, we’re trying to take a look at police driving accidents and death statistics overall, and trying to reduce the overall number of what we call preventable incidents. We realize based on past reports by the National Safety Council, or the National Law Enforcement Officers Fund, and even some done by National Institutes of Justice, or the International Association of Chiefs of Police, that there’s just way too many crashes involving emergency vehicles, and especially deaths among police-involved responses.

Tom Temin: And do you get the sense early on it is because of distractions that are inside the vehicles? I mean, police cars are full of PCs and screens and mobile devices.

Jim Grove: Some have opined over the years, and there have been reports, that the equipment that is in these vehicles is a source of distraction. Some have pointed directly at the mobile data terminal or computer as a source. But I think we have to go back and look at when police response vehicles were designed, they were designed with two people in the vehicle. And over time, we’ve put more and more equipment into the vehicle, we’ve required that single officer now to operate that equipment. We’ve reduced the number of dispatchers probably over time, and expecting that officer to parse that information out of the mobile data terminal, while they’re also trying to drive, trying to operate maybe a siren, to change the channels on a radio, and then to be able to listen to what’s happening on the radio, maybe if they’re responding to support an officer, a man down or domestic incident or be able to even reposition themselves based on other traffic that they’re hearing over the radio.

Tom Temin: And is there a regional or locational aspect to the pattern of losses? That is to say, does it happen more in urban police settings or more in rural settings or does that even apply?

Jim Grove: I don’t know that I have that data to show the difference between rural and Metro. But we did work with a Metropolitan Police Department who approached us after an artificial intelligence project we had. And they had completed a Lean Six Sigma methodology which is defining measuring, analyzing, improving and controlling risks. And their goal was to reduce the number of police accidents. Metropolitan Police Department responds to almost 1900 responses a day. And over a two year period, or almost a two year period, they found almost 300 preventable accidents. And of those 84% occurred during a non-emergency operation. So it’s not necessarily emergency operations that are causing these. And almost 80% of those were not responding to a call. So they can be anything from backing the car out of a spot to hitting a parked vehicle. And they also found that about 97% of those were not a result of the vision being obscured. So yes, there’s a lot of equipment that’s been jammed in the vehicle. And there’s a lot of things that we’re asking the officers to do from a cognitive, visual or manual perspective. But I would say that from preliminary analysis from the data that we’ve gotten so far, indicate that the major risk factors for emergency vehicle crashes, go really beyond the technology. And they typically fall into four categories: the driver, the task, the vehicle, and the environmental factors. So one of the other factors that was brought up as part of our discussions with Canada, and here in the U.S., is new recruits. So you take a recruiting class of let’s say 300 people that apply. And by the end of getting the best of the best, you wind up with 30. One of the things that is not looked at is their driving skills. And what we’re doing is we’re taking that new officer who maybe multitasks at home in a safe environment, because he’s playing video games and talking on the phone or any number of things. And now, we expect them to get into this mobile office environment and suddenly drive in environments that he’s maybe never driven in before and to operate at speeds that he’s not used to. And we just think that there’s more need going forward to look at the training and how it’s delivered. And we recognize that large driver training systems are not necessarily solutions. We’re not trying to teach a driver how to drive the vehicle. The assumption is they know how to do that. But we need to train the brain, cognitively, visually and manually, how to deal with the distractions in the vehicle. And what’s important to us is understanding the underlying cause of these crashes is critical for determining the effective solutions and strategies to reduce the occurrence of similar incidents. And I would add that the numbers that we’ve found through these reports reinforce the concept that traveling to an incident is often more hazardous for that first responder than what they do actually, after they arrive at the scene.

Tom Temin: Got it, we’re speaking with Jim Grove. He’s portfolio manager in the Science and Technology Office of Science and Engineering at Homeland Security. And tell us the methodology by which you’ll study this, who were some of the partners, and how you’ll go about the program of trying to get to the bottom of this phenomenon?

Jim Grove: Sure, we’re working with a variety of stakeholders, including law enforcement officers, academia, local, state, federal partners, and the private sector to understand the underlying causes of distracted driving incidents. And specifically those law enforcement operations. We’re employing a systems engineering approach, we’re using the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab as our lead investigator for this. And we want to broaden the spectrum of the problem space, which will help us to identify, examine and understand the abundance of factors that contribute to this distracted driving and related consequences. It’s important for us to note that before we can determine what solution sets should be applied to this, that we need to understand, again, the leading causes. And so we’re reviewing the data. And I’ve talked a little bit about that. We’ve completed interviews with focus groups. And now we’re starting to head into a combination of where we want to look at both ideas, as well as maybe Design-a-thon-type challenge. And we’ll probably end up offering financial incentives for that. But what we want to do is to further increase the development of a potential commercial or no-cost solution or non-technical solution that can be easily implemented. One of the items that I think is of interest is that S&T recently supported development of something called the HAS alert. And it’s an alert system that provides responder to vehicle information. So if you’re driving your car, it lets you know that there’s a responder vehicle in close proximity, it provides responder-to-responder information. So the two emergency vehicles don’t collide and provides some situational awareness. So if I’m driving a fire truck, and I come across crowded roads, it can reroute me and get me to the scene quicker. The interesting thing about that is that solution is now a part of the basic equipment package for all fire trucks manufactured by Pierce manufacturing. So if we and others that are looking at this space can come up with these low cost solutions, maybe it becomes part of the next Ford or Chrysler GM product, or some other kind of technology.

Tom Temin: Yeah, I guess what’s good for driving by police is good for driving by anybody.

Jim Grove: Absolutely. And we also recognize, too, that the technology alone is not a solution. I know I come from a science and technology environment. But the fact is that advanced technologies can blind us from really fully understanding what the root cause of the problem is. And we need to understand that so that we’re positively impacting the driving environment, and not adding some kind of additional distraction to the driver.

Tom Temin: All right, and what’s the timeline for all of this? And do you have guinea pig drivers to try things?

Jim Grove: The next phase of the project now is to work through this ideation and design-a-thon, and then test those and provide those into police departments to look at and further evaluate. And then we hope to have this wrapped up by next December, and then be in a position to work with those innovators and help them further design those. I do want to point out that we are again working with Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab as our systems engineering lead. But again, we’re not the only ones looking at this, the National Institutes of Justice, Department of Transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington State University, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, among others, have ongoing studies of a different variety, and we’re contributing to that larger body of knowledge. And we hope that that will help close that gap. Regardless of whether the solution that we find is technical or non-technical. We want to continue to advance that and we want to find new ways of interacting with the devices that are in these vehicles and really create a much safer driving environment, not only for law enforcement, but first responders in general.

Tom Temin: Alright, Jim Grove is a portfolio manager in the Office of Science and Engineering at the Science and Technology Directorate at Homeland Security. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jim Grove : Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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