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“Imagine you are an officer en route to a critical call for service. You look down for a moment at your mobile data terminal for an important message from dispatch, and immediately return your focus on the road. In that split second, a civilian motorist crosses into your travel lane and forces you to react.”

Jim Grove, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) Portfolio Manager supporting the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, effectively captures a challenge that law enforcement officers face every time they are in their vehicles: balancing the need for critical data with the urgency of arriving safely at the incident.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 2005 and 2017, nearly 40% of police officer line-of-duty deaths were the result of crashes. Due to the increasing number of technologies that have been integrated into law enforcement patrol vehicles, officer distraction is often viewed as an inherent occupational risk. Unfortunately, these tools, designed to assist officers in the performance of their job, may also compromise their safety and the communities they serve by increasing instances of distracted driving.

To put this in perspective, it is estimated that taking your eyes off the road for an average of five seconds is like covering the length of a football field while driving 55 mph blindfolded. Even a 20% reduction in preventable accidents would represent a large impact on the nearly $35 billion annual costs for injuries, vehicle repairs and replacement and liability claims.

DHS S&T RESPONDING TO THE NEED

In the Spring of 2020, DHS S&T began working with United States and Canadian government, academia, public safety organizations, researchers, and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers to identify the major distractions that lead to law enforcement officer involved vehicle crashes. DHS S&T partnered with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) to apply a systems engineering approach to identify, understand and reduce the contributing factors to distracted driving.

Patrol officers and leaders from across the U.S. and Canada shared experiences and perspectives on the risks and causes of collisions, actions that agencies have taken to reduce them and the need for changing how data and critical response information is provided by dispatchers and technology manufacturers. S&T also engage with the private sector and academia to discuss solutions that could readily integrate into existing infrastructure and personal protective equipment with limited or no interference.

“I applaud the effort by S&T to identify and mitigate the distractions presented to police officers as they patrol our communities,” said Albert Liebno, Jr., Executive Director of the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions. “With over 35 years of driver training experience, I have grown concerned with the dangerous mix of new recruits with limited driving experience and the requirement to manage multiple police data sources, all with the expectation of safely controlling their patrol vehicle. I look forward to the progress of this project.”

APPROACH

Based on this research, the project team is currently developing an early stage prototype driver training and assessment tool (DRIVE-Safe) specifically designed for law enforcement. DRIVE-Safe is a virtual driving assessment tool that augments current training with experiential-based practice opportunities where performance can be tracked and measured in near real time. The initial prototype includes a virtual driving environment displayed on large monitors, a cockpit with a seat, wheel, and pedals arranged similarly to a patrol SUV. Unlike most commercial driving simulators, this approach will use a gamification approach that will provide driving scenarios designed to train and improve a law enforcement officer’s cognitive, manual, and visual skills with low-cost, commercially available equipment. The availability of a low-cost ($6,000 or less) solution is recognized by law enforcement as a much needed and affordable capability.

The project team is partnering with Cole Engineering Services, Inc. in Orlando, Florida, to use the Enhanced Dynamic Geo-Social Environment’s (EDGE) Unreal Engine to develop the Drive-Safe prototype with multiple scenarios in urban, rural, and highway driving environments. The prototype will be equipped with an eye-tracking device to aid in the after-action review process and provides the opportunity to understand the user’s visual and cognitive state while driving. Testing and evaluation of the Drive-Safe prototype will begin in the fall of 2021.

DHS S&T will also release a supplemental guide, “Independent Assessment: A Resource Guide of Technology for Mitigating Distracted Driving.” This guide will describe various technologies that could be beneficial in reducing distractions or mitigating driving-related accidents. The guide will also provide an overview of future network technologies, considerations for smart cities, next-generation 911, fifth-generation mobility services, and various aspects of autonomous driving.

Law enforcement agencies interested in learning more about this project may contact SandT.innovation@hq.dhs.gov. For related media requests, contact STMedia@hq.dhs.gov.

For more information, download “Advanced Decision Support for Public Safety: Reducing Preventable Distracted Driving Incidents.”

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