Wheeling Police SUV Strikes and Kills Fredi Morales on McHenry Rd: Was It High Speed Distracted Driving?

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Inside all newer vehicles is a box the size of a deck of cards, known as an event data recorder or EDR. The EDR tracks seat belt use, speed, steering, braking and at least a dozen other bits of data. When the air bag deploys, the EDR’s memory is captured for 5 seconds before the crash, during the crash, and 8 seconds after the crash. The EDR is similar to a jet airliner’s “black box.” The information is vital for accident investigations and is almost always downloaded to a laptop or other capture device in almost all major crashes involving vehicles equipped with EDR. The summary is known as a crash data retrieval report.

Sunday morning about 5:40 a.m. an on-duty Wheeling police officer was westbound on McHenry Road approaching Sam’s Club and hit a pedestrian, who was identified as Fredi Morales of Des Plaines. Paramedics were called and Wheeling Fire Department immediately responded. Additional police officers responded and a call was immediately requested that the Lake County Major Crash Assistance Team (MCAT) respond to the scene. Morales was pronounced dead at the scene. The police officer involved in the crash was transported to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.

Notice skid mark in middle of lanes of westbound McHenry Road and that the incident occurred near the crest of a small hill in the road with a long incline …

At 5:40 a.m. Sunday, September 14, 2014, the crash occurred in complete darkness with sunrise at about 6:32 a.m. with the first hint of light not until 6:03 a.m. An accident investigation will answer a lot of questions about the crash. One of primary importance will be the speed of the SUV. The EDR should discover the speed of the specialized police interceptor Ford Explorer SUV just before impact. It can show deceleration before impact, or it can show no deceleration or braking before impact. On visual inspection, the amount of damage to the front end of the Ford Explorer indicates a high speed impact — assuming the incident was a simple vehicle crash with a pedestrian. The investigation could find that the vehicle speed was considerably higher than the 40 mph posted speed limit. At least one witness interviewed on television reported hearing a vehicle “hauling” with no siren just before the crash occurred. Many questions will need to be answered regarding the speed if it is found to be excessively high: Was the officer responding to a call? Did the officer accelerate to catch up to a suspicious vehicle or circumstance on his own discovery?

Another concern of the crash will be distracted driving. Did the officer see the victim before he was hit? Or was the impact the first indication of the accident? Was the officer distracted by onboard technology? Many police squad cars today have laptop displays, mobile data terminals, multiple radios, dash cameras, moving speed radar indicators (that can detect the speed of oncoming vehicles while the police squad is moving). Was the officer looking down briefly to read a display before he hit Morales? A glance to the display, especially while traveling at high speed could increase the risk of failing to see a pedestrian in the roadway or crossing the street. Or did light from the displays prevent the officer from seeing Morales? If Morales was wearing dark clothing and was walking in the street, it might have been hard to see him, especially if interior light from vehicle displays obscured conditions on the other side of the windshield.

Distracted driving involving police vehicles is becoming an increasingly familiar problem nationwide. Sometimes serious crashes — even fatal crashes — have involved distraction from onboard fixed displays or from cell phone texting by police officers.

On December 8, 2013, Milton Olin, a 65-year-old attorney and former chief operating officer of the online file-sharing service Napster, was riding his bicycle in Calabasas, California when he was reportedly hit by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy. The sheriff’s deputy was apparently distracted by his mobile digital computer. His squad car is reported to have drifted into a bike lane — striking and running over the bicyclist. Olin was pronounced dead at the scene. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to press charges against the sheriff’s deputy because he “was acting within the course and scope of his duties when he began to type his response” to another deputy about a fire call response he had just completed.

The law does not prohibit officers from using an electronic wireless communications device in the performance of their duties in Los Angeles County, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office (See Los Angeles Daily News No charges for LASD deputy who fatally struck cyclist while typing on computer).

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