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Steering clear of accidents 

by League Communications Specialist Jessica Wells

It’s been three years since Risk Management Services implemented a police driver training course to reduce the number of accidents across the state, and it has paid off immensely.

The 52 departments that participated in the training show a 20 percent reduction in vehicle claims. Edenton Police Department had an all-time high of 9 accidents in 2012, but after training only had one accident in the past two years.

"It’s not a matter of if an accident is going to happen," Edenton Police Chief Jay Fortenbery said. "It’s when."

That’s why he and Town Manager Anne-Marie Knighton have been night – I was looking everywhere for possible hazards. It really changes how you approach driving."

The Smith System keys are posted in every police vehicle as a reminder to be safe.

"I talk to our supervisors daily telling them to drive careful and be careful," Fortenbery said. "You can’t let it go for a minute. You really can’t."

The department is using the most recent accident as a learning experience, too. The officer at fault will give a presentation to the rest of the department on what went wrong and how the accident could have been avoided.

"I think our whole approach, not just in terms of training, but also when we do have an accident, how we stop, evaluate, listen, brainstorm and drill down has changed," Knighton said. "We want to know what went wrong because usually it’s not just one decision or thing. Then you step back, analyze and ask, ‘What should we do in the future to prevent this from happening?’"

Although the training was mandatory and Fortenbery put disciplinary policies in place for repeat accidents, Knighton and Fortenbery said officers were receptive to the training.

"Officers didn’t like what was happening. They didn’t like that the newspaper had headlines about how many accidents we had," Knighton said. "They take a lot of pride in their work, and we have a lot of good people who wanted to do the right thing and operate in the safest manner."

Through the department’s analysis of accidents, they found majority of accidents are caused by backing, so one of the new policies counts backing accidents against an officer’s record twice. Fortenbery is also a member of the Risk Management Services Police Chiefs Advisory Committee, which was put in place to review the complex accidents, injuries and liability claims associated with police departments and develop programs to help keep officers safe. The committee developed advanced TASER training, is working on implementing a comprehensive risk assessment process and is testing devices that will reduce distractions while an officer is driving.

Fortenbery said the device has been great for his department since it disables the officer’s keypad while the car is in motion. Officers are able to glance at the screen to read addresses, but typing takes the driver’s eyes off of the road for too long.

"With technology in police cars, there are so many possible distractions – you have radar, radio, in-car computer, calls – they’ve got to stop the car and type in the computer instead of typing while driving," he said. "The devices are a little costly, but the testing is going really well."

Even though the price tag seems steep, Edenton has been able to drastically reduce its number of claims. Not only are officers and other drivers safer, the reduction in claims saves the town on repairs, medical bills and insurance premiums.