RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Police officers spend hours on the road responding to emergencies, but sometimes they are the ones in need.

In 2012, more than 800 police vehicles were involved in crashes in North Carolina. Now local researchers are working to make the roads safer while officers are working behind the wheel.

A North Carolina State University study is the first of its kind analyzing the design of the in-car computer interface to make it safer and more user-friendly.

Cary Police Chief Tony Godwin learned early on the benefit of having a computer in his patrol car. He was one of the first officers in the state to have one back in the 1990s.

“The more information we have before we get to a scene, the better equipped we are to handle whatever the problem is,” he said.

Although police say these computers provide information they need to help keep them and others safe, researchers with NC State’s Industrial and Systems Engineering Department say they could also put officers and drivers at risk. They cite studies from across the country that found driver distraction to be a primary cause of emergency vehicle crashes.

Maryam Zahabi, a PhD Candidate at NC State, is working on the project.

“We are trying to make the job safer and make the driving task safer for the officers and of course normal drivers on the road,” she explained.

Using a simulator, she and her fellow researchers analyze how officers use their computers. They can determine exactly where someone’s eyes are looking and for how long, and they can see how driving is affected.

Cary police officers participated in the research, although Cary’s chief emphasizes it’s against department policy for officers to actually use the computer while driving a moving car.

“As everyone who has a cellphone knows, it is very difficult to drive and look at a screen,” said Godwin.

Researchers believe the in-car computers can be made more user-friendly for officers. Currently, there’s a lot of text on the screen. Zahabi said that can change.

“We can present information in a way that’s less demanding for officers, so we provide a summary page for them. We provide a navigation tool to go through different pages of information,” she said.

“We’ve added some features to it – shifting from text-based information to using tables and graphics,” said David Kaber, an NC State professor and engineer.

Although the study isn’t finished yet, Godwin said he found a big difference when using the new layout.

“It was easier to get to the screen you needed to get the information inputted, and then when the information came back out it was more readily apparent on the screen. It wasn’t multiple pages of information you had to get down through,” he said.

Researchers said they noticed changes, too – including better lane maintenance and speed control.

“We’ve seen some great results with just some simple changes manufacturers can make,” said Kaber.

The NC State study is the first of its kind analyzing the design of the in-car computer interface to make it safer and more user-friendly.

While no studies have analyzed how many of the hundreds of police crashes in North Carolina are related to use of an in-car computer, a number of studies from other states show that driver distraction does play a role in emergency vehicle crashes.