Distracted driving is a common term today. It’s also a common practice. Despite laws regulating cell phone use while driving, we all see it everywhere we go. Driver’s texting, reading, talking—even playing games—on their phones, all while driving.
We get frustrated behind them when the light turns green and they’re not paying attention. We try to get around them as they weave down the road 10 mph under the speed limit. We laugh at them trying to steer out of the parking lot while balancing their cup of coffee and holding their phone. Absolutely out of control, right?
Now consider this scenario: A police officer reading a crime broadcast, or typing on his or her MDC, while holding a cup of coffee, and steering with a knee through traffic. How about trying to zoom in on a map, while changing lanes and responding to an urgent call? And in some states, officers can be exempt from cellphone laws, allowing them to use their cellphones while driving. When coupled with all the other police equipment available in the patrol unit, it is clear how an officer can be distracted while driving.
Question: Can this be as dangerous as the civilian driver described in the second paragraph, above?
Recently, in at least two separate incidents on California highways, distracted officers have been involved in rear-end collisions. In both of these collisions, the officer’s patrol car struck a civilian vehicle and a civilian was killed.
I can’t even imagine how these officers must feel. I know how difficult it was to have to deliver a death notice and explain to a family how their loved one was killed in a collision. I can’t imagine the burden when the cause of the collision may have been an on-duty police officer.
We’ve seen here how distractions in a patrol car can have devastating results. Imagine if either of those officers were on motorcycle patrol. Most likely, the law enforcement community would have suffered another officer fatality.
Quite naturally, motorcycle officers want some of the same equipment mounted on their motorcycles as is available in patrol cars. Items such as GPS, video screens, blue tooth, cell phones, iPods, etc., have all been mounted on law enforcement motorcycle handlebars and fairings. Although the information available over all of these items can be useful in carrying out a patrol officer’s duties, they can endanger the motorcycle officer—and the public—by distracting the operator, who should be trained on the road.
The need to be in communication via MDC or view a Soundex over a screen can make an officer more efficient in taking enforcement action or making an arrest. But I question the need for the officer to access this type of information while they are engaged in operating a patrol vehicle. In a two-person vehicle, the passenger officer can certainly access digital information without affecting the safe operation of the vehicle. However, in a solo officer unit, car or motorcycle, viewing digital information or manipulating and electronic device can distract an operator just long enough to result in a collision. As we have all heard, “You can’t help if you don’t get there.” The information conveyed over these devices can be safely delivered once the patrol vehicle has stopped and still be of value to the officer.
The Need for Balance
We need to balance the need for information with the need for safe driving. Technology will only keep up the pace, and the spillover from civilian life to duty responsibilities often means that younger officers expect nothing less than the latest and greatest. Technology can make us more efficient, but it can also imperil our safety.
A few years ago, a friend of mine at the sheriff’s department proudly showed me his new video equipment on his motorcycle. The video screen was mounted on the handlebars of his departmental motorcycle, allowing him to monitor the screen while he was riding. We had a short debate about the need to have the screen on the handlebars. I did not agree with the decision to put the video screen on the handle bars, where the operator’s eyes can be drawn down, away from their typical high visual horizon. My friend didn’t think it would be an issue.
Recently, my friend and I were together at a motorcycle demo ride, and he proudly showed me how his department had removed the video screen from the handlebars and mounted it inside the radio box. He explained they had learned that having the screen in front of the operator did not increase the officer’s efficiency and may become a distraction. The officer could access the video screen when the motorcycle was parked, and out of harm’s way, and still access any information needed to carry out their duties. I congratulated him.
Ultimately, law enforcement, especially traffic law enforcement, is enhanced through self-generated, pro-active police work. The patrol officer’s toolbox contains many useful items used in the performance of their duties. At the top of that toolbox is the officer’s power of observation. Having an officer’s eyes up and scanning the environment ahead keeps the officer safe and heightens public safety.
Bottom line: As it has always been, having an attentive officer ready to take enforcement action is the best deterrent to unlawful activity. Especially, distracted drivers.