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Ernest Uhlenkamp and his wife were cruising down a rural highway toward their farm near Sauk Centre, Minn., when he saw a police car approaching on a side road off in the distance.
"I told the wife, I said, 'That looks like a cop car coming at a pretty good clip,'" recalled Uhlenkamp, 80. "But, I thought, well, he knows there's a stop sign there ... he should know the rules, and I didn't pay much attention."
But the squad car -- a Minnesota state trooper's -- didn't stop. Seconds later, a high-speed crash sent the Uhlenkamps spinning in their Chevy Blazer, breaking Bernice Uhlenkamp's ribs and wrist and bruising Ernest's knees so badly that he had trouble walking for a week.
After the Nov. 11 crash, the Uhlenkamps learned that the trooper, Gregg Gerhartz, had been entering information into the squad car's laptop moments before.
Distracted cops are a relatively new twist on one of the biggest problems on the road: distracted driving. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood calls distracted driving a "deadly epidemic" and the government has centered many of its public safety campaigns on the issue, which includes everything from texting to eating to talking to a passenger.
But as law enforcement vehicles are increasingly loaded up with high-tech equipment such as laptops and cellphones over the past couple of decades, there's growing concern that troopers, too, need to keep their eyes on the road.
The Sauk Centre crash remains under investigation, said State Patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Roeske. "Once the reports are finished they'll be forwarded to the county attorney ... to review for any charges," he said.
The crash was not immediately reported on a State Patrol website that lists highway vehicle crashes around the state. Roeske said that was because the patrol's St. Cloud district typically doesn't include crashes without life-threatening injuries.
The case isn't the first to draw attention to the issue of distracted driving by law enforcement. A class of graduate students at St. Mary's University of Minnesota -- most of them retired or active-duty law enforcement officers -- decided early this year to research police-involved vehicle crashes to see if there is a relationship between distracted driving and police auto liability claims.
"There's a desire for more awareness on the part of law enforcement officers about exactly what it means to be engaged with technology while you're doing your job," said Dan Greensweig, assistant administrator of the Insurance Trust at the League of Minnesota Cities, an instructor for the class. The study, which had a small sample size, didn't have enough data to come to firm conclusions, Greensweig said, but students found that additional training may be helpful, along with possibly redesigning where distracting items such as laptops are placed in squad cars.
Roeske said trooper crashes are rare, especially considering all the miles troopers drive. Distractions are addressed in training, he said. "The fact of the matter is there are distractions that police officers have to deal with on duty. It's part of our job," he said. "We're also held responsible if we make a mistake and violate a law and cause a crash."
Sometimes messages are sent over laptops while troopers are responding to incidents while on the road, Roeske said, but typically troopers only need to click a mouse pad or hit a key on their laptops -- much different than someone texting, he pointed out.
Roeske said Gerhartz, a trooper for a dozen years, wasn't available to comment on the crash. Roeske said he didn't know what information the trooper was entering into his laptop and why. Gerhartz had just finished a traffic stop. He didn't see the stop sign but tried to stop his vehicle before the crash, officials said. Roeske said Gerhartz has more than 20 letters of commendation in his personnel file, including some from drivers he had pulled over, and many recognizing his work to improve traffic safety.
Gerhartz was well aware of distracted driving issues. He was struck by a semitrailer truck during a traffic stop on Interstate 94 a few years ago and suffered significant injuries, Roeske said. "And that was a case of distracted driving," Roeske said.
'Obey the rules'
Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll, an advocate with Minnesotans for Safe Driving, said the crash shows that driving distracted is dangerous even for highly trained drivers who spend hours on the road, such as State Patrol troopers.
"We really cannot take any chance at all by doing something that takes our attention off driving, even for a second, because this is what occurs," she said. "They are absolutely better drivers than most of us, and yet this can happen to them, so it can happen to anyone."
Ernest Uhlenkamp said Gerhartz has apologized to him and his wife, and has visited Bernice in the hospital.
"I imagine they should obey the rules like the rest of us," Uhlenkamp said. "Sometimes they figure, like we do, that they can get away with it."
Uhlenkamp said the couple, who were heading home after having dinner with one of their children, would like their expenses paid and their SUV replaced.
Still, he said, everybody makes mistakes, and some are worse than others.
"I've lived too long, I don't know, it don't pay to get upset, I guess," Uhlenkamp said. "He sounds like a decent fellow, so I hate to stir up trouble. You can make enough enemies without doing that, I guess."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102