Distracted Driving: a Safety Challenge

No one knows how many officers are injured or killed each year because they are just too busy behind the wheel. It's a sure bet, however, that distracted driving is one of the more likely causes of many officer involved motor vehicle crashes.

When you consider the number of activities that the typical officer undertakes during a routine patrol day, it's not surprising that officers are caught in so many vehicle accidents. Even when officers are working in pairs--and there's a second officer to "man the office"--the driver is still susceptible to factors that can influence his or her ability to focus on driving as their primary task.

The driver has to listen to the radio traffic, look for addresses, identify license plate numbers, and play "what if" with his partner, while trying to maintain a reasonable level of attention to the driving task. This is even further impacted by having his or her mind in problem-solving mode while en route to a call, as the partners will have to devise a strategy on-the-fly for handling whatever they find when they arrive on-scene.

Most officers work by themselves today, so this difficult situation is exacerbated by one officer having to assume the additional tasks normally handled by the passenger officer. Communicating with dispatch, keeping a log-sheet, using the data terminal--after pulling over, of course--and other chores can really tax an officer's ability to maintain driving focus.

Now think about the fact that many other drivers on the road are similarly distracted. A study out of the University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center found that over 280,000 distracted drivers are involved in serious traffic crashes each year.

That study found that drivers were most often distracted by something outside their vehicle, but a significant number were also distracted by things inside the vehicle. One of the most significant distracters was adjusting a radio or CD player, followed by talking with others passengers, then eating or drinking and smoking. Cell phone use, although a problem, was pretty far down the list.

Others studies and surveys have found that using a cell phone or other communication devices, adjusting vehicle controls, and interacting with passengers are major distracters. While these studies have focused on the motoring public, it's not much of a leap to apply the same yardstick to officers working patrol.

The problem officers have in controlling distracted driving is that, if you look at many of the recommendations that groups such as AAA make for reducing distractions, they're difficult for officers to follow. Typically these recommendations are things like:

  • Do not take notes or try to write while driving;
  • Limit communication with passengers, especially those involving detailed or emotional issues;
  • Use a hands free device for your cell phone.

Still, there are things that officers can do, including limiting cell phone use, pulling over to take notes on BOLs and other lengthy transmissions, and concentrating on driving events that affect their vehicle and its place in traffic. If there is one thing officers can focus on to reduce distracted driving incidents for themselves, it is probably to concentrate on never keeping their gaze focused on anything for more than a couple of seconds, but always to scan and sweep their field of vision for hazards.

Aside from watching your own "inattentiveness level," you should also be on the lookout for other distracted drivers. You might not see that many overt examples if you're driving a marked unit, but rest assured they're out there. Any suburban freeway commute in an unmarked car will yield people grooming--especially shaving and putting on make-up--and even reading. When maneuvering around these drivers, defensive driving is an absolute must.

Some surveys estimate that as many as 50% of all collisions involve distracted drivers. It's fair to say that the percentage is lower for officers, but knowing what officers have to put up with on a daily basis while driving, I wonder exactly how much.

Stay safe, and wear your vest (and Buckle Up!)