Protecting our Public Safety Protectors: Distracted Driving Doesn’t Discriminate

“Distraction, whether it’s hands-free or handheld, whether it’s texting or talking, is deadly.” What powerful words from Deborah Hersman, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

But considering that more than 79 percent of state and local government agencies alone rely on mobile devices to do their jobs today, there’s increased pressure among workers to be available to respond during off-peak and after-hours. And often times those work-related responses are coming from the car…while they’re driving.

Did you know that:

  • The Federal Railroad Administration (“FRA”) bans the use of mobile devices by locomotive engineers operating the controls of a moving train?
  • The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) prohibits pilots from using mobile devices during taxi, take-off, landing, and flight operations below 10,000 feet?
  • President Obama has banned all federal employees from typing on mobile devices while driving?
  • And the NTSB has called for a total ban on the use of mobile devices while operating a motor vehicle?

Yet, ironically, the very folks tasked to enforce the hands-free talking/no texting laws across millions of miles of roads in more than 45 U.S. states –and several more localities – aren’t necessarily being required to abide by these same laws themselves?

Public Safety Officers Using Mobile Technology in their vehicles

For example, a 2011 NIOSH Law Enforcement Officer Motor Vehicle Safety survey found that while elements of a typical motor-vehicle policy varied among law enforcement officers in Iowa, “…overall, speed restriction when using lights and siren (27%) and restricting use of mobile devices (39%) were the least common elements” included in those policies – or enforced among those officers.

I get it. Public safety officers have to respond now and they rely on the data dispatch is sending to their mobile devices while on the move. Sometimes they need to look at their in-vehicle computing screens while traveling at higher rates of speed in order to do their jobs faster and more effectively. However, there needs to be some benefit-risk trade-off assessment, and assurances, that they’re being held to the same safety standards as every other driver on the road. This can’t be a “do as I say, not as I do” situation.

Distracted driving isn’t any less dangerous because someone is wearing a badge, and it certainly doesn’t discriminate between law enforcement officers and civilians. That’s why I think the suggestions my colleague Scott Ball made last week in his blog about “Devices Against Distracted Driving” should become a priority for law enforcement agencies in particular.

We already know that car crashes are the leading cause of workplace deaths – more than double the amount of workplace deaths resulting from assaults, falls or equipment related incidents. That means that, even as mobility advocates, we have to acknowledge that the best way to keep our workers mobile and productive while on the move is to not use the in-vehicle tablet or notebook.

Plus the “law” is not above liability. Even public safety agencies can be held accountable when the organization has a motor vehicle safety policy regarding mobile device usage that follows federal regulation and state laws but employees don’t abide. I realize that having a policy in place isn’t going to stop offenders. This is a hard policy to enforce.

But that’s even more reason to invest in mobile technologies that prevent distracted driving. Adding a $350 blank-it technology to a single mobile device protects you from the multi-million judgements that are being handed down. Otherwise, you’d be responsible if the employee used their agency-issued device while en-route to an appointment and crashed, injuring the other driver.

So as we wrap up Distracted Driving Awareness Month, let’s make sure we continue to protect those protecting us. Public safety officials: Make sure that, regardless of the mobile technologies you implement in your officers’ vehicles, you’re making those small extra investments to protect them from the dangers of mobile-induced distracted driving. Let’s keep them safe on the roads so they can continue to keep the rest of us safe as well.

Learn More about Distracted Driving Awareness Month.