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Data-Driven Efforts Yield Safer Drivers for a Washington Sheriff’s Department

Digitally collected driving and vehicle data from police cars in the Pacific Northwest has led to fewer car accidents and costly lawsuits, all while promoting a culture of safety.

by / July 18, 2018
The view of the inside of a Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office police unit. Technology to monitor driving behavior has been in stalled in some 300 emergency response and other vehicles at the sheriff’s office.
Roughly two-and-a-half years ago, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office installed Verizon Connect telematics technology on some 300 emergency response and other vehicles as one part of a larger effort to improve safety through reduced collisions. That investment is showing real results.
The technology monitors details like speed, seat belt use, or whether or not the vehicle’s flashing lights are engaged, offering administrators, legal teams and the officers behind the wheel feedback about their driving and collisions.
Having access to that data has helped to modify behavior, and ultimately, has led to reduced speeds and safer driving, sheriff department officials said. 
“People may not believe what I say, but they certainly have to believe the data that we’ve produced,” said Rob Beidler, undersheriff for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. “And I have proven — over and over and over again — that this safety program, which includes telematics, works."
“The data’s quite shocking,” said Beidler, who has become somewhat of an evangelist for the safety strategy, known as Below 100, traveling to conferences and speaking with other agencies.
Collisions deemed preventable decreased from 40 in 2015, to 32 in 2016, and then fell again in 2017, landing at 13, according to county statistics.
The decrease in officer-involved collisions also meant a drop in litigation. In 2015, the sheriff’s department paid out about $2 million in litigation expenses related to traffic accidents. The next year, that amount dropped to $23,000. In 2017, the department paid about $5,000 in litigation costs.
The average speed squad cars and other emergency vehicles are traveling when a collision happens to occur is down from a 50 percent decrease to a 70 percent decrease since the program began. These stats are compiled by other county departments such as risk management or human resources, not the sheriff’s department.
“If you think about damage and injury, that’s a significant data point. Even when we do wreck, the speed is far less,” said Beidler.
Police departments and other organizations managing fleet operations could use the technology and the feedback it offers as a starting point for improving driving behavior and as the basis for promotions or other incentives.
“We rarely us this system to go to the whip. We rarely do. It’s just not needed. We primarily use it as a rewards-based system,” Beidler said, adding the department has seen about 70 percent reduction in disciplinary action related to vehicle use.
“But let's be honest, every once in a while someone will test us, when it comes to a seatbelt, or when it comes to driving a little bit too fast or something,” he added.
So, the data can serve as the start of a conversation about driving behavior, said Mark Wallin, Verizon Connect’s vice president of Product Management.
“Using our platform and our scorecard, they’re able to actually sit down and have a conversation with their officers, and say, ‘Hey look, I noticed that when you’re in pursuit, you look pretty good. You’re driving aggressively, but safely. I like that. But when you’re not, I notice that there’s some driving behavior that we might want to manage a little bit, so that you can be safer,’” Wallin elaborated.
Not surprisingly, given the surveillance nature of the technology, police groups have not always embraced telematics with enthusiasm.
“You know the answer to that question,” Beidler remarked, when asked about the feedback the technology garnered from union organizations. “Of course my unions, were like, ‘Holy cow. You mean you guys know everything we’re doing, like all the time?'
“So yes, it was difficult to overcome, because it’s the ultimate ‘Big Brother,’ right?” he said.
“We’ve proven that over the last couple of years that we’re not abusing it. We don’t fish through it and find people doing things wrong,” Beidler explained. “Every day we do things to prove to people that it really is just about safety.”
One way officers have been won over is through features like the notifications that get sent out if, say, a unit’s airbag is inflated — the most tell-tale sign of a car accident. The alert goes out not only to command officials, but also to 911 dispatchers to get help deployed only seconds after an accident has happened.
The technology can also help locate a stolen unit since the technology never turns itself off. Another large part of the platform can be used for managing maintenance, as the system can alert maintenance crews if there’s a real-time problem, Wallin said. 
An organization using telematics is also better able to manage maintenance triage situations, where some vehicles may need to come off the road right away and others might be able to wait a while longer.
"It’s a number of things, just around maintenance, using a platform like ours is a huge opportunity for any government agency to maintain their vehicles better, reduce the cost of ownership, help them understand where they’re spending money, where they’re having trouble and allows them to be much more efficient with their large mobile resources,” Wallin said. 

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Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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