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Texting and Driving by Law Enforcement

I was driving home yesterday when I looked over and saw a Pinellas County officer texting and driving. I was immediately floored. Speaking with others in the office, they described a series of incidents where they notice officers typing on their computers and using other devices while driving.

It’s important to note that it is not illegal to drive while texting, talking on the phone or using another device while driving in Florida, unless such actions amount to “reckless driving.” Yet, officers know more than anyone else that distracted driving is as dangerous as drunk driving.

Emergency drivers across the nation claim that technology is helpful to saving time and providing essential information. But there is a clear risk not only to the driver, but also surrounding motorists.

In April 2008, a New York paramedic quickly typed into his dashboard computer in the middle of rushing to a local hospital. Suddenly, a woman stepped in the street. The driver slammed on his brakes, just barely avoiding a collision.

Emergency response vehicles are becoming more wired than ever. Approximately 75% of police cruisers use on-board computers and 30% of ambulances use this technology. But job related devices aren’t the only ones riding shotgun in emergency vehicles. Almost every person has a personal communication device as well.

A number of first responders see benefits to the technology. Computers allow police to check license plates, find information about suspects and exchange messages with dispatchers. Ambulances get directions, traffic information and scene reports via computers. They are even able to send information about incoming patients before arriving at the hospital.

This increase in technology and its productivity for government drivers comes along as regulators, legislators and advocates seek to limit distractions for the majority of drivers. Most agencies have rules about using technology while driving. Yet, these rules are ignored by many responders seeking information. There is no accountability for ignoring these rules as states that limit or even ban cell-phone use and texting make an exemption for first responders.

Departments seek to find alternative solutions, such as speech-to-text options. However, these solutions are cost prohibitive. For example Panasonic’s license-plate reader system can cost around $8,000 per car, requiring a $3,000 to $5,000 laptop.

I understand the need for first responders to use these devices to get information. I also appreciate the value and ease they bring to these professionals. However, the convenience brought by these devices is no different than that brought to the average consumer who uses a device to get information.

The claims that it’s necessary because it saves lives are based on the concept of externalizing the costs. Yes, it saves the time of first responders, but at the cost of possibly injuring others or causing a collision. It is unfair of the government to place these burdens upon the people and provide immunity for liability against negligent parities.

A technology system that costs around $11,000 is little in comparison to the loss of a life. It’s been noted in numerous studies that distracted driving is as dangerous, if not more so, than drunk driving. We wouldn’t encourage officers to drink and drive, so why should we encourage them to drive while distracted. I urge everyone to seriously consider whether the benefits of new technology upon local communities really outweighs the cost of distracted driving.