Wednesday, April 18, 2012

BAC Safety Comm: Improving Crash Reporting

At the April meeting of the BAC Safety, Education, and Enforcement committee, we discussed the Street Smart Campaign, interviewing of injured crash participants, crash report oversight processes, and possibilities for changing the PD-10 crash report form. Thank to attendees: Commander Crane and Lt. Breul of MPD, Dan Hoagland of WABA, Randall, David, and Alphonso of BAC, and Katie Mencarini of Toole Design.

1. Update on Street Smart Campaign

Lt. Breul and Commander Crane provided an update on the Street Smart Campaign enforcement going on in April. The week of 4/10 was the week of bicycling enforcement, following weeks of pedestrian and motorist enforcement. There are a lot of new posters related to distracted driving posted around the city. Through the bicycling week of Street Smart enforcement, there have been mountain-bike mounted police officers participating in enforcement. In addition, the breath program will be starting up again in July. Officers have been instructed to focus on warnings, since this is principally a public education campaign.

In the next few months, MPD will be putting together in-service training modules, which will present situations for officers to deal with involving traffic enforcement. This will be an important tool to further education of officers beyond the initial training course that all officers took in Fall 2011. The module will likely focus on key legal issues for bicyclists regarding riding to the right and riding abreast. In the past, tickets have been mistakenly to a bicyclist riding to the right of traffic for “riding abreast”. In fact, riding abreast refers to several cyclists riding next to each other, not a cyclist riding to the side of traffic. Meeting attendees brought up several other misconceptions of officers - accurate ticket fees, the fact that bicycles are allowed to ride outside of bicycle lanes, and that bicycles may be parked at most meters.

2. Interviewing Injured Crash Participants as Part of Crash Investigations

MPD has stated that their investigations are not complete until they interview all crash participants. In some cases, an injured crash participant is rushed to the hospital to undergo treatment, and cannot be interviewed at the scene of the crash. In these situations, officers have a responsibility to travel to the hospital to interview the crash participant. However, officers also have a responsibility to file their crash report before the end of their shift and many new calls are constantly coming in, pushing officers to complete paperwork as quickly as possible to enable them to respond to new situations. The 2011 Office of Police Complaints report recommended that MPD change its policy to allow officers to wait to file their police report until they have interviewed all crash participants. MPD has not taken this step. Instead, they argue that officers will usually be able to interview an injured crash participant in the hospital by the end of the shift. In the cases where they cannot, they should file a supplementary PD-252 which essentially adds extra information to the PD-10 crash report form.

This outcome is problematic because while it ensures that an injured crash participant is interviewed, it does not ensure that an injured crash participant is interview before assigning fault for the accident and before issuing any tickets. It is difficult to complete a crash report form without determining fault, and therefore if one is filed before all interviews are completed, the officer will be forced to make a judgement without complete information. Even if a later interview changes the officer’s mind regarding fault, it isn’t clear how the PD-10 would be changed - these forms are not amended after they are submitted.

3. Oversight of Crash Reporting

In the past, there have been problem situations in which invalid tickets are issued to cyclists due to gaps in understanding of traffic law as applied to cyclists. Two particular issues include a cyclist being ticketed for not wearing a helmet (when in fact this is only a rule in DC for under 16 riders) and a cyclist being ticketed for “riding abreast” (when only a single bicyclist was present, so this infraction wasn’t possible).

While we can’t expect every officer to know the in’s and out’s of every law, we can expect:

1) That officers use reference resources to look up laws about which they are unsure before issuing tickets
2) That oversight processes be in place to double-check that invalid citations not be issued in crashes

Invalid citations are extremely problematic for cyclists. If a cyclist is improperly faulted in an accident by the police report, then they are faced with the need to go to court to get any compensation. Court costs can quickly swamp possible damages collected. By contrast, if police reports are accurate the first time around, then unnecessary court costs can be avoided in many cases.

After an officer submits his/her report, it is reviewed by a Sargent. While a Sargent cannot ensure that all facts of the case are correct, he/she can and should ensure that there are no internal inconsistencies in the report, such as conflicting information or violations that make no sense. Some troubling situations in the past include these internal inconsistencies. MPD has stated an intention to continue working on education in this area. Their education priorities were mentioned above, which apply equally to these situations.

4. Changes to the Crash Report Form PD-10

The PD-10 is a complex form. Some of its fields are redundant. Language inconsistencies are used. For example, in some parts of the form the word “bicycle” is used, while in other the word “pedalcycle” is used (I had to look it up, pedalcycle refers to a unicycle, bicycle, or tricycle).

An overly complex form only increases the chance of errors in filling out the form, and needlessly keeps officers pushing paper instead of answering calls. The Office of Police Complaints report recommended a couple of minor changes to the report form. In addition, the report form should be simplified to reduce redundant option choices and use consistent language throughout the form. MPD is not currently planning to revise the PD-10.

The crash report form is submitted to federal accident reporting systems. It must collect standard information. Restrictions of the federal systems may be part of the reason for redundanies in the form. Alternatively, it might be possible to add intelligent logic underneath the form to do validation/error checking and to autofill question fields where redundancies exist. The BAC will continue to pursue the issue of making improvements to the form as a way to reduce the chance of errors.