By Ben Douglas

The present-day patrol car is as much a marvel of modern innovation as it is a sad example of automotive design. Think of all the dangerous things we have the potential to be exposed to on a shift: Tainted blood, puke, feces, hazardous gasses, armed adversaries and perhaps the most dangerous of all — captains and lieutenants — and this is all before we leave the station! Now take a look inside your patrol vehicle. The view from the driver seat abounds with distractions. We’ve got Mobile Data Terminals, radios, emergency light controllers, public announcement systems, stereos, LoJack displays, long-gun racks and don’t forget your cell phone. Everything is packed, added, jimmied and scrunched into the very small compartment you use to operate that 5,000-pound missile we call a patrol vehicle.


At least the computer screen and keyboard are combined here, but the radio and other toys are mounted on the center hump instead of the dash. It’s hard to get muscle memory when cars are configured differently.


We are the ultimate distracted drivers, you know, the term we use on collision report forms and cell phone citations. Granted, we do this for a living and many of us have become quite adept at the task. We’re the consummate multitaskers. As I tell every person I write one of those citations to, it takes one flash of one second for your whole life to become a tragedy — because you needed to answer that text, or call your bro to see what the plan is for tonight.

Our excuses are so much more compelling: I was looking up suspect information; I was mapping the location of that choking child. In the end, the excuse will be forgotten, but the pain, the loss, the stress associated with the aftermath of a vehicle accident lasts in the memory of a lost officer or a meaningless lawsuit the city will again pay out to a grieving family.


Lots of ways to be distracted with this setup — MCT (partially blocking view out windshield), air/heater controls, lights/siren/flood light controls and police radio all stacked together. And then there’s the keyboard, too…

Drive With A Purpose

There are a few things we can do to compensate for our disadvantage when we hop in our ride and head out on patrol. Every one of these suggestions is aimed at one idea: Concentrate on driving. First, familiarize yourself with the design of your patrol car. Muscle memory is amazing. It can be used to your advantage if you choose to operate those devices without looking. The more times your hand goes to the same place to operate the device, the better you’ll become at operating it without taking your eyes off the road.

Next, if you need to do anything more than glance at a data terminal, make sure you pull over before you do. Looking at the computer means not looking at the road. Stoplights aren’t the best spot to do that work either. Chances are you’re going to hold up traffic or miss the parolee who’s pulled up next to you.

Stay off the radio! Obviously, there’s a time to use the radio when driving, but I see and hear way too many officers launching into a diatribe of worthless information they feel the need to put out over the air. If you’re on the air, you’re not paying attention to the road and perhaps worse, you’re hogging the air from everyone else. I can think of a few times I’ve tried to put out “one at gun point” only to get stepped on by another officer putting out a suspect description for a stale misdemeanor … “last seen walking westbound in the north alley of Adams Street by the Frosty Freeze.

He’s wearing Ray-ban Aviator sunglass and likes long walks on the beach, hiking in the Sierras and sunrises.” Seriously? The radio is as much about receiving information quickly as relaying important information. Listen to the radio and if you’re driving, advise over the air only what’s necessary, when necessary.


A smart idea would be for agencies to outfit their cars identically, so officers know exactly where the buttons and toggles are without having to look.


All of those nifty additions surrounding our seats, they’re just that, additions. None of the equipment added to your car has undergone NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) testing. That “Exempt” plate is a double-edged sword. It may exempt the vehicle and it’s driver from many laws, but it also exempts the owner from following the same laws requiring the vehicle to be safe to drive. There’s no telling what or how the equipment in our vehicles will behave in a serious accident and how it will affect the occupant. This makes it all that more important to stay focused on driving and keep safe.