Distracted driving keeps cops’ eyes off the road
The message is loud and clear: Texting and talking on cellphones can distract drivers. But what about on-duty law enforcement officers who must type and talk in their vehicles every day?
The same police officers who are called upon to enforce no-texting laws may have their hands full looking up information on their in-car computers or switching channels on radios to communicate with other officers and dispatchers.
Cops may be some of the most distracted drivers on the road — but for good reason. They’re pioneers of mobile computing, says Andrew Kun, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire who’s leading an initiative to reduce driving distractions faced by cops.
“You and I, well we just shouldn’t use our cellphones and we could probably get away without using our GPS devices just fine. We could just drive,” Kun says. “Basically, officers have to use the electronic equipment in the car as part of their jobs … while they’re driving.”
|Cops face numerous distractions in their police cars, such as texting.|
Kun says accessing data, switching radio channels, and turning on and off sirens and emergency lights are all activities that can distract an officer when driving a police car.
The on-the-road burden is high for officers, who must maintain control of their cars, often at high speeds, while watching out for other drivers and pedestrians and interacting with dispatchers and other colleagues, says David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah who has studied driving distractions. Those activities will put them at risk for crashes, Strayer says.
Tackling the problem
Some states have taken steps to help curb distractions faced by police officers by instituting bans on cellphone use and texting. Although Florida hasn’t outlawed cellphone use by drivers, the Florida Highway Patrol in 2010 required its troopers and staffers to use hands-free devices when on the job and banned texting. Troopers also are required to pull over when they’re using GPS.
Capt. Mark Welch says the Florida Highway Patrol wanted to set an example for motorists.
“We just wanted to take the lead because electronic device use is such a hot topic, and driving in general — whether it’s eating a hamburger, tending to a kid in a backseat or texting — is a distraction,” he says. “We wanted to do everything we could to curtail the hazards to our (patrol) members.”
The Florida Highway Patrol allows troopers to perform activities such as running license plate numbers from on-board computers while their cars are moving, but anything that requires “excessive input” must be done on the side of the road, Welch says.
Idaho’s Boise and Blackfoot police departments also set an example by prohibiting their officers from using cellphones and handheld devices to text or send email while behind the wheel.
In harm’s way?
Critics say the biggest danger with officers using electronic devices while driving is that they’re taking their eyes off the road.
Although there haven’t been major studies done specifically about on-the-road distractions in cop cars, Strayer equates looking at a computer while driving to blindfolding a driver.
“Part of the job of the police is to protect the individuals,” Strayer says. “If they’re driving in a manner that puts them more likely to be involved in a crash, that’s not a good thing.”
In 2010, a New Jersey police officer died when his car struck a utility pole; police confirmed his computer had been used to check a license plate number before the crash, according to The Associated Press.
|For police officers, looking at a computer while on the road is like driving blindfolded, a University of Utah professor says.|
Leonard Gabbay, an attorney in Austin, Texas, is representing a 74-year-old man who was injured when a police cruiser reportedly drove through a stop sign and hit his motorcycle in May 2010. The police offer wasn’t responding to an emergency, Gabbay says.
The man, Louis Olivier, is suing the City of Austin as well as TriTech Software Systems and Versaterm, makers and sellers of the computer that Olivier’s lawsuit claims “enabled, condoned, and promoted texting while driving.”
Austin police officer Damon Dunn had just finished giving a ticket and was entering report information into his onboard computer. While he was “creeping” along at a speed of 5 miles per hour, Dunn collided with Olivier’s motorcycle, Assistant Police Chief Raul Munguia says.
“There have always been distractions in police cars,” Munguia says.
Munguia adds that his department, like others, faces the challenge of determining how to manage the growing number of electronic distractions as more technology is used in police cars.
Munguia says Austin officers are told during training that if they need to type information into their onboard computers, they should pull over, but they are allowed to text while driving. Changes such as increasing font sizes on computer screens and reducing the number of computer keystrokes needed to obtain information are aimed at lessening officers’ distractions behind the wheel, he says. The department also is looking at systems that allow data to be displayed without officers having to look down at a screen while driving.
The University of New Hampshire is working to avoid situations like the ones in New Jersey and Texas. Faculty, staff and students at the school’s Consolidated Advanced Technologies Laboratory have developed the Project54 system, which integrates the devices in a police cruiser and lets officers use voice commands to accomplish their work. More than 1,000 vehicles throughout New Hampshire are using the system; it’s also being sold in other states.
“We found that driving performance is significantly better when you can issue voice commands as opposed to having to push tiny buttons and view a tiny display,” says Kun, the University of New Hampshire professor.
Some routine aspects of a cop’s job, such as running a license plate number, don’t have to be done while driving, says Strayer, the University of Utah professor. Studies have shown that driving worsens if you try to multitask, which is something cops frequently do.
Another bump in the road: Police departments don’t seem to draw a solid line between communicating for work and for personal reasons, Strayer says.
Gabbay, the Texas attorney, believes that police officers should be allowed to use an onboard computer while a vehicle is in motion, but only when a partner in the car is typing the information.
“They need parameters that will make them able to do their jobs safely without needlessly injuring the public,” Gabbay says.