Investigation: Fla. emergency responders have high rate of distracted-driving crashes

About 18 percent of Collier and Lee county police, fire, and EMS vehicle collisions involve distracted driving compared to 11 percent for all drivers


Ryan Mills
Naples Daily News

NAPLES, Fla. — A bang and a boom: That’s all Diana Aragon remembers about the crash that sent her to the emergency room and totaled her 2009 Audi.

Collier sheriff’s Lt. George Welch plowed into Aragon’s driver’s-side door with his agency-issued Ford F-150 in July 2012 after dropping his cellphone and running a red light at U.S. 41 and Fourth Avenue North.

Aragon’s neck and back were injured. She couldn’t work at her family’s jewelry store for the better part of a year and was in physical therapy for 2 1/2 years. She is only now getting back to where she was before the crash, she said.

“I was never angry. I was always very thankful that I was alive because I know it could have been the other way,” said Aragon, who spoke highly of how Welch handled himself after the crash, including going to the emergency room with her. “My life was on hold for at least two full years.”

Aragon’s accident is one of more than 4,100 distraction-related crashes in Florida in recent years that involved an emergency responder, who are among the best trained drivers in the state. Southwest Florida emergency responders had a higher rate of distraction-related crashes than the general public in recent years, according to a Daily News review of nearly 2 million Florida wrecks from 2011 through 2014.

During the four-year period, at least 171 of the 977 state-reported crashes involving Collier and Lee law enforcement officers, firefighters and medics involved distracted driving. About 18 percent of their crashes involve distraction, compared to 11 percent for all drivers.

Southwest Florida emergency responders were at least partially at fault in at least 66 of the 171 distracted driving crashes — about 40 percent — leading to nearly $800,000 in liability payments. But they’re hardly ever ticketed; only seven times during the four year period.

In 27 of those crashes, they were distracted by cellphones, computers and other items in their cars.

Most of the distraction wrecks were minor — rear-end crashes, striking mailboxes. But distracted driving was noted as a factor in at least three recent high-profile Southwest Florida crashes involving emergency responders.

In 2013, two unborn babies were killed in separate crashes with emergency responders in Lee County. And last year, a 15-year-old Cape Coral boy riding his bicycle to school was hit and killed by a Lee deputy’s cruiser. Cape police said the deputy was using his in-car computer at the time, though the deputy disputed the accusation.

The crash numbers are conservative, in part because Collier and Lee emergency responders are in hundreds of minor wrecks every year that don’t generate reports sent to the state. Some of those likely involve distracted driving.

Other distracted driving crashes may have been omitted because filling out crash reports involves some subjectivity, including whether or not to classify a driver — and sometimes a fellow law enforcement officer — as distracted.

For example, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, which had the most self-reported crashes over the four-year period reviewed by the Daily News, had only three at-fault distracted driving crashes in the state accident data. That’s less than 1 percent of all of the agency’s at-fault crashes, a significantly smaller percentage than any other local law enforcement agency.

The higher rate of distracted crashes involving emergency responders comes despite the extensive training before they join the force and regular on-the-job training they receive. All but four of the 66 distracted driving crashes involved law enforcement officers.

“Overall, law enforcement officers have always been held to a higher standard and should be, for everything; personally, driving,” said Todd Everly, director of the Southwest Florida Public Service Academy in Fort Myers. “We’re trained more than an average citizen. ... We should be better trained than a normal citizen that gets their license when they’re 16 years old.”

The Collier County Sheriff’s Office, which is self insured, paid out $114,133 in liability payments after Welch crashed into Aragon, according to the agency.

Welch said he was upset after the crash, and has adjusted his driving habits accordingly.

“The biggest thing for me is we were both able to walk away from it,” he said. “It could have been much worse.”

Crystal McClure still spends much of her days in a wheelchair. She gets around a little on crutches, but her feet swell and she can’t carry her 11-month-old daughter, Crysleigh.

After the February 2013 crash that killed her unborn son, Christian, McClure and her husband, Christopher, moved into a new house in North Fort Myers. The old one wasn’t very big and she couldn’t get her wheelchair down the halls.

She doesn’t like talking about Christian. He died after the family’s 1993 Jeep Cherokee was hit on Interstate 75 by Florida Highway Patrol trooper Gustavo Reyes, who was distracted by his in-car computer. They were driving to Bass Pro Shops in Gulf Coast Town Center.

McClure and her husband were ejected. She nearly died. The crash knocked out her teeth, punctured her lungs, fractured her hip socket, and crushed her ankles and pelvis, which is held together by six plates and 26 screws, she said.

In this file photo, Christopher McClure, top left, holds up photos of their stillborn son Christian during a news conference in the hospital room of Crystal McClure, center, at Lee Memorial Hospital. (Maryann Battle/Staff)

“I’m still angry because if he had been paying attention, this maybe would not have happened,” McClure said of Reyes, who returned to road duty after a 240-hour suspension. “I may still have Christian. But then again, it may have happened for a reason.”

The crash that injured McClure and killed her unborn son was among the 171 distracted driving crashes involving Collier and Lee county emergency responders from 2011 to 2014, and one of at least 27 caused by responders whose attention was focused on electronics and other distractions inside their vehicles. In at least 12 of those crashes, the responders were distracted by an in-car computer, the most common distraction in their vehicles, according to the analysis.

One Collier deputy crashed after he was distracted by paperwork falling from his visor. A Lee ambulance driver rear-ended a vehicle in front of him while he was returning a radio microphone to its holder. Several reports did not list a specific distraction.

“The (crashes) that pique my interest are the ones that are data delivery and how to decrease that occurrence,” said Greg Smith, chief of administration for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.

Emergency responders were distracted by people or events outside of their vehicles at least 28 times between 2011-2014. They include police officers and deputies distracted by suspicious crowds, red-light runners, loose dogs, an ambulance and even the sun and rain, according to crash report narratives.

In 11 of the distraction crashes, emergency responders were reported to be simply inattentive without a specific cause of distraction mentioned. They include a Lee ambulance driver who ran a stop sign in Fort Myers in February 2013, struck a vehicle and killed the driver’s unborn baby, according to reports.

The FHP paid $300,000 to the McClures — $200,000 to Crystal and $100,000 to her husband, reports said. Lee County paid $293,603 in the crash that killed the unborn baby in Fort Myers.

There’s a lot of gear packed into a police car: a dispatch radio, a radar detector, a dashboard camera, a laptop, a printer to produce tickets, a siren box, temperature controls and most likely a cellphone.

“It’s almost like being a fighter jet pilot,” Everly said. “You have all this technology now inside of a police vehicle ... but you’ve still got to pay attention to what’s going on outside.”

Lee County Sheriff's Office Deputy Mike Zazwirsky's laptop, which sits behind his passenger seat, is connected to a touch screen housed in his cruiser's center console. (Carolina Hidalgo/Staff)

Instead of getting bigger to accommodate the equipment, police cars are getting smaller. A few years back, the roomy Crown Victoria was discontinued, replaced by the compact Ford Interceptor sedan.

While cops have plenty of potential distractions in their cars, they also spend an inordinate amount of time behind the wheel. Lee deputies drove over 13 million miles last year, while Collier deputies drove nearly 9.5 million miles.

In several national cases, distracted driving by emergency responders has turned deadly. Two teenage sisters were killed on Thanksgiving Day in 2007 by an Illinois state trooper who was talking on his cellphone, using his in-car computer and driving 126 mph, according to media reports. In 2014, a deputy in Los Angeles was distracted by his computer when he struck and killed a bicyclist, a prominent entertainment attorney.

An article in Police Chief Magazine, a trade publication for law enforcement, called distracted driving “Law Enforcement’s Achilles’ heel.”

Most local agencies have policies prohibiting the use of mobile data computers or wireless devices while a vehicle is moving, and officers regularly receive behind-the-wheel training. But avoiding distractions is easier said than done.

One Collier deputy crashed his patrol car twice in six months, distracted in both cases by his in-car computer.

“It’s a concern for law enforcement executives nationwide,” said Smith.

When law enforcement officers are responding to a call, they are supposed to get details from a dispatcher over the radio, not from their computer screen. But from his experience, Smith said it’s tempting to look at the computer to see who among fellow officers are responding.

“You want to know when the troops get there how many of them are there going to be,” he said.

Lee deputy Cortney Erny was approaching the red light at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Evans Avenue when she looked right, taking her eyes off the road. By the time she looked forward again, it was too late to stop.

Erny’s Crown Victoria ran the light and struck the rear corner of a 1996 Buick heading north on Evans, reports said.

The December 2012 crash was investigated by a Lee Sheriff’s Office detective. The narrative of his crash report is clear that Erny ran the light after taking her eyes off the road. But was she distracted? “Unknown,” according to the report.

The Lee Sheriff’s Office is the largest local emergency response agency. Its deputies were in more total crashes (886, though many were minor and did not generate crash reports) and “preventable” crashes (342) than any other agency from 2011 to 2014.

Yet, according to state data, Lee deputies were distracted in only three at-fault crashes in that four-year period, less than 1 percent of the agency’s at-fault crashes.

By comparison, Collier deputies caused 37 distracted driving crashes between 2011 and 2014, about 13.5 percent of the agency’s “deemed avoidable” crashes. Cape Coral police caused 10 distracted driving crashes (17.5 percent of their at-fault crashes) and Fort Myers police caused five (5 percent of their at-fault crashes) in the four-year period.

“Geographically, we’re bigger than the state of Delaware, so we’re doing a whole lot more driving than some of these jurisdictions that have just these metropolitan areas,” said Smith, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office chief. “I would expect us to have more. Would I expect us to have this many more? In some instances yes, in some instances no.”

It’s possible the crash reports involving Lee deputies don’t classify distraction correctly, said Lt. Jeff Dektas, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman who spent four years in the agency’s training section. But he doesn’t think it’s likely.

“As much driving as we do in our training, and as much as it’s talked about in roll call, I’m not surprised the number is low,” Dektas said.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office’s three distraction-related crashes do not include the crash last August when deputy Douglas Hood hit and killed 15-year-old Austin Dukette as the teen rode his bike to school.

The initial crash report marked Hood as “not distracted.” Two months later, however, Cape police cited him for careless driving after their investigation showed he was using his cruiser’s laptop at the time of the crash.

Hood disputed the findings and was eventually found not guilty of failing to maintain his lane of travel — an amended charge — in March. The case is now pending in civil court. Before the traffic court hearing, the agency reassigned Hood to work in the Lee County courthouse.

While emergency responders who cause distraction crashes rarely receive citations, they usually receive some sort of internal reprimand. Typically they receive letters of warning or are assigned to attend driving school.

“I don’t know they’re cited any more rarely than the public at large,” Smith said. “I may be able to speculate that what’s going to happen to them internally is going to be much more corrective than a citation, and that’s what those are meant to do anyway.”

After crashing into Aragon, Welch was cited for failure to stop at a steady red signal and received a letter of warning from the Sheriff’s Office. Harris Reid Berenson, the Lee ambulance driver who ran the stop sign and killed an unborn baby, was cited for careless driving, placed on leave from his job and ultimately resigned. Attempts to reach Berenson for comment were unsuccessful.

Collier deputy Miguel Nova was in two distraction crashes in less than six months. In October 2013 he rear-ended another vehicle, and in February 2014 he drifted and struck his passenger side mirror on a barricade. Both times he was distracted by his in-car computer, reports said.

After the first crash he received a letter of warning. He was sent to driving school after the second, records show.

“That’s a guy that didn’t get the message the first time,” Smith said. “But along with that, I’ve got to respect the guy for manning up and telling me within a six month time frame that I did it again.”

Compare at-fault/avoidable crashes vs. at-fault distraction crashes from 2011-2014

View a map of Collier and Lee counties showing distracted driving crashes by emergency responders

———

©2015 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.)

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2019 ems1.com. All rights reserved.