When basic physics trumps high technology

The National Transportation Safety Administration attributes 10 percent of all fatal accidents to driver distraction, and a squad car cockpit is cluttered with distractions

By Police1 Staff 

You’re driving your patrol car down the road when a call for service appears on the computer. You look at the screen to check the address for what seems like just a split second. When you look up, you suddenly realize that you are about to run into the car in front of you.

You jam on your brakes narrowly missing a rear-ender. The civilian driver in the car in the next lane flashes a dirty look with a half-assed grin on his mug. You know what he’s thinking behind that smirk. “You’re supposed to be setting the example of safe driving!”

Sound like something that you’ve heard about our maybe even seen up close and personal?

Admit it — at least to yourself — that “near misses” have happened to you. The National Transportation Safety Administration attributes 10 percent of all fatal accidents to driver distraction. So what makes a cop immune from these dangers? Here’s some late-breaking news for you: You’re not protected from any of these dangers.

“Well, I can’t do my job if I can’t respond to my computer or send text messages while driving,” is your response.


For many years, your brothers and sisters of yester-year were able to do the job using what was called a “Call Box.” When the dispatcher (a real person — almost always a female named Jennie or Mabel) got a call for service, she would activate a blue light which was either on top of the town’s water tower or at various places within a district. When the patrolman saw the light was illuminated, he would call the dispatcher to get the details.

Not much distraction there. The only equipment in the vehicle was a revolving red light and a mechanical siren which would actually slow down the vehicle when activated.

It was not until the 1950s and later that the two-way radio and central dispatching became the standard means of police communications. It may sound like ancient history, but in the past few decades we have gone from the simple two-way radio to so much technology in the squad car that it is no wonder we are literally being driven to distraction or figuratively driving by distraction.

As technology has advanced, we have loaded our patrol cars with electronics that we now believe we absolutely must have in order to complete the mission. However, as we have added each of these devices, little attention has been given to the human (ergonomic) factors. Equally important: How will cops work with these devices in a tactically sound manner and not be distracted when driving?

In addition to the equipment which is already in the car, we bring in our own gadgets: cell phones, smart phones, and other devices. Collectively, they create the perfect storm of an accident looking for a place to happen.

On January 20, 2010, NY State trooper Janice Mattice was killed when returning to her post. She drifted into another lane and ran into the back end of a tractor trailer at 57 mph. Although, the investigation ruled that she not was texting or talking on a cell phone (ahem), something distracted her which resulted in her death. While we don’t know what the distraction was, it is obvious that factors other than texting and cell phones that distract officers, but many other distractions can take an officer’s mind off the road and they can be deadly.

Thirty states now have laws prohibiting texting while driving, yet most give police officers an exception. Although some departments have tried to write policy regarding the use of texting devices, this is more less a “cover-your-ass” approach for when an accident happens. Yet, the real problem of officer distraction goes way beyond looking at or sending text messages. So what are you supposed to do? How can you do your job and not be distracted while driving?

First and foremost, AWARENESS of the problem is key to finding a solution. It is vital to survival to recognize that cops have no innate ability to multi-task when driving. Training and on-the-job experience have made most of us better at what is called “pattern recognition” — the ability to spot things such as criminal behaviors that others don’t see. But that is pretty much where it ends.

“It is a matter of physics,” says Tony Scotti, founder and godfather of the Driving Dynamics Institute. “Reaction time is reaction time and stopping distances are controlled by physics.”

Said another way, “It is what it is.”

Another contributor: many police officers believe that they must respond immediately to everything. We develop a mindset that the big call is seconds away. Therefore, we must respond as fast as possible to every call and just put the pedal to the metal while studying the computer, looking down to flip on the lights, sirens, and to talk on the radio.

The few seconds that it would take to pull over to the side of the road, slow down, or leave a larger gap between cars are not going to make much difference in our ability to get to the scene of an incident any faster. Worse, if a distraction causes an accident, it means we might not make it to the scene at all.

Yup, I know that all sounds good. Complacency and thoughtless urgency kills us — and it can kill YOU. When you get into the mindset that, “It can’t happen to me” is when you get nailed by fate. What has happened over time: you have successfully multi-tasked, working all the electronics in your patrol car, possibly even texting on a Blackberry while driving and nothing has happened. Oh yeah, there are those near-miss rear-enders (sigh).

All of these experiences have falsely rewarded bad behavior and reinforces the idea that you are invincible. It is exactly that attitude that can get you killed.

Here are some tips that need to be driven (pardon the pun) into your brain to keep you safe.

• Driving a vehicle is as dangerous as using the sidearm that you carry. It can kill you and those you are trying to protect.
• Driving requires your full attention
• If you get a text message, wait until you can pull off to the side of the road or find a safe place to read it
• Remember: it takes you just as long to stop or control your vehicle as the person next to you or in front of you
• Leave extra stopping distance between you and the car in front of you
• Always wear your seat belt and shoulder harness
• Frequently check your rear view mirror and scanning what is around you
• Remember: getting there safely is better than not getting there at all

So do police administrators and equipment manufactures believe we are still responding to the old fashion Call Box? It often seems so. The truth is that most top-level decision makers have never worked a patrol shift with any of this gear. They lack a first-hand understanding of the fundamental changes it has brought to patrol work.

However, one manufacturer currently is offering voice activation and audible response of everything in the vehicle from your light bar to your computer. Hopefully this new technology will catch on quickly to help decrease the amount of distraction that takes your eyes of the road.

Those administrators sitting in the “Ivory Towers” need to realize that the police vehicle has become an electronic albatross of human distraction. The reality is that for some, it has become a mobile death trap. You need to realize the dangers that equipment distractions can cause.

After all, it’s comes down to saving just ONE life.

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