ST. PETERSBURG The number of crashes involving St. Petersburg police cruisers was skyrocketing, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in liability payments for injuries and property damage.
Last year, the city paid $218,397 for injuries caused by police vehicle wrecks, compared to $4,514 in 2011, according to city data.
City officials blamed distracted driving for the mostly low-speed crashes. In many cases, officers were using their laptops while driving or backing into things because they weren’t being careful enough.
Police Chief Chuck Harmon asked the department’s training division to produce a video stressing safe driving habits and made all of the officers in the department watch it.
The number of wrecks dropped – dramatically.
In the first four months of 2013, wrecks dropped more than 40 percent – going from 53 to 30 – compared to the same period last year, according to a May 16 memorandum from Harmon.
The number of wrecks officers could have avoided – as opposed to the ones they couldn’t – dropped by 55 percent, going from 27 to 12 wrecks, police department statistics show.
“Preventable accidents have gone down,” said the training division’s Sgt. Tim Brockman, who helped put the video together. “We would like to think that the video did have a positive impact. At a glance, it looks like it may have helped.”
At the beginning of the 15-minute video, a man and woman are seen walking down a church aisle to be married before they vanish, and the screen fades to black. A simple sentence appears on the screen: “Traffic accidents kill or end the careers of more officers than firearms or assaults combined.”
Soon, the couple is facing not an altar but a coffin draped in the American flag.
The video, titled, “Driver Training and Awareness 2012,” was made mandatory viewing for St. Petersburg officers in the middle of 2012. Officers typically watched it from their squad cars.
The video covers a wide range of safety issues, from the importance of wearing a seatbelt to how difficult it is to stop a squad car at high speeds. It is full of information, such as how many officers have been killed in Florida due to car wrecks.
“There’s just a lot of extra distraction for the officers,” Brockman said. “Unlike the average person, we have that laptop in the car that’s constantly sending us messages, dispatching us to calls and giving us updates as we are going to the calls.
“There’s a constant use, in some way, shape or form, of that computer.”
Additionally, the police radio is on constantly, and officers are required to keep an eye out for criminal suspects or suspicious people while they drive.
Aside from keeping people safe, there’s a big economic incentive to reduce crashes. The $218,397 St. Petersburg spent on injury payments caused by police cars represented a dramatic increase from the unusually low amount paid out in 2011 but also a nearly fourfold jump from the $55,499 paid in 2010.
Payments for property damage had also been inching upward. The city shelled out $80,646 in 2012, compared with $72,987 in 2011 and $64,337 in 2010, according to numbers provided by the city.