Updated: 05/07/2013 10:46 PM KSTP.com By: Mark Albert
A sudden and dramatic spike in the number of automobile-related deaths of law enforcement personnel nationwide has instructors in Minnesota sounding the alarm.
"We tell the officers that they are the most distracted person on the highway," explained Tim Dickinson, director of the Emergency Vehicle Operator Course at the Minnesota Highway Safety and Research Center in St. Cloud, where up to 2,000 current and future police officers, sheriff's deputies, and other law enforcement personnel go to train on safe-driving techniques.
With so much new technology and responsibilities, officers are now "watching so many different things that sometimes driving can be the last thing they're actually thinking about," Dickinson said in an interview.
Auto-related deaths have jumped 36% nationwide so far this year compared to 2012, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a website that shows a bold red, upward arrow highlighting the alarming statistic.
"We don't want to... hurt someone or kill someone," Dep. Brent Curtis, a skid course instructor at MHSRC, said.
"At the end of the day, ultimately, we want to go home. At the end of the day, we want to go home so we can see our families," said Curtis.
On Tuesday, a Rasmussen College class of 22 students was learning skid and other maneuvers behind the wheel of simulated squad cars. On Wednesday, officers from the St. Cloud Police Department were scheduled to attend the course.
Minnesota used to require officers to be trained behind the wheel once every three years. But amid budget cuts, the Legislature extended the length between trainings by two-thirds, to once every five years, explained Dickinson.
When asked whether the additional years between required driver training courses would hurt officer safety, Dickinson replied: "I believe it will."
"We are going to see, in Minnesota, the crash rate go up," Dickinson predicted.
In Minnesota, five law enforcement personnel have died in auto-related crashes in the past decade and 1,045 have been injured in crashes during that same time, according to figures from the state Department of Public Safety.
The president of the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association, Rogers police chief Jeff Beahen, told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that Minnesota has worked to improve officer safety by installing devices, called Opticom technology, that preempt traffic signals when officers are responding with lights and sirens; improving the quality of training; and requiring an officer attend a driving school when they're hired.
Click here to read more statistics on law enforcement deaths due to auto-related crashes.