On texting while driving: A trainer’s perspective

Amid the mix of police radios, laptop computers, and license plate readers, we also have cell phones to distract us

By now, many of you have seen the controversial PSA from the United Kingdom on Texting While Driving. I’m not sure why it has been controversial. Yes, it is graphic and violent but as far as I can tell after 16 years of Law Enforcement experience, it is also accurate.

The video will no doubt be effective in reaching our youth and the awareness of “texting while driving” or “intexticated driving” as some media personnel have labeled it is at an all time high. I applaud the increased awareness and law enforcement across our country will no doubt be given the permission by their states and cities to enforce these newly formed criminal statutes in a very short time.

All of this brings me to another question. What are we in law enforcement doing to prevent this from affecting our own safety? Now, I know the mere mention of this will make some uneasy. I’ve been speaking on issues such as this long enough to know what can upset the audience. I think it is healthy to discuss this before others discuss it for us. Do your officers know these dangers as it relates to them?

Indeed, diverted attention has no doubt always been an issue for law enforcement driving but something tells me that the challenge our professionals face in 2010 is vastly different than in years past.

Two decades ago, we had to worry about a police radio and possibly a notebook attached to the windshield. A decade ago many of us faced the issue of having a mobile data terminal. Today the items that could take our attention away from the road are even greater in number as well as in complexity.

Traffic has increased, the demands and expectations of our finest have increased, and throw in the mix police radios, laptop computers, dispatch calls with details being sent to screens, and myriad other devices including cell phones, iPods, and the like, it does not take a genius to figure out that we are increasingly distracted while behind the wheel of a car.

Typing or texting takes over the senses and physical tools required for driving. Your eyes and mind are taken off the road, and at least one hand will be taken from the steering wheel. In addition, on average it takes almost three times as long (63 seconds) to text a message while driving than from a desk (22 seconds). There is potential that your eyes could be away from the roadway for a full minute.

That is why that a 2009 study by the Eastern Virginia Medical School on texting and driving, described the results as “frightening.”

Those potential dangers equate to real dangers.

While there are plenty of studies on the effects of cell phone usage and driving, there has been a significant gap in the research which details the capabilities of many newly designed phones and devices including those that enable texting.

• Researchers at the Clemson University Psychology Department discovered in driving simulator research that text messaging and using iPods caused drivers to leave their lanes 10 percent more often
• In a 2008 study commissioned by the RAC Foundation, writing text messages created a significantly greater impairment than reading text messages and that reaction time impairment caused by texting while driving was apparently greater (35 percent) than that caused by alcohol (12 percent) consumption to the legal limit for driving and marijuana (21 percent) consumption

While there are not any police specific studies on the issue that should not make us believe that this is not a real threat. The number of miles driven and frequency of vehicle use should call of us to attention in an effort to reduce the potential dangers that our officers are in.

While driving a truck is obviously a different type of employment than being in law enforcement, I would like to propose that there are fewer distractions inside a cab of a truck versus a police car, where the officer is required to do everything from answering the radio, reading the call on an MDT, and looking in their environment for suspects.

In 2009, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute looked at the behavior of truck drivers covering more than six million miles of road. To conduct the research, cameras were mounted inside the vehicles and captured the driver’s eyes as they did various activities while driving. The results should be a wakeup alarm for us all. This was not a study on inexperienced teenagers. It was a study into drivers that drive as a profession and have extensive training.

The study concluded that those who sent text messages while driving were 23 times more likely to be in a crash than those that did not. On average, texting took the driver’s focus away from the road for 4.6 seconds. At 55 mph, that is traveling the length of a football field. Cell phone usage posed a risk at 1.3 times greater.

The Impact
The first step to ensuring our officers are safe is to recognize the problem. A state law or department policy will likely do little to prevent the behavior and the ultimate dangers it causes. I know from experience. A decade ago when my agency placed computers in cars, I was warned by other agencies to take an aggressive stand on their usage while driving. Numerous instructions and guidelines were given to the officers including pulling over to type and keeping the screen down while driving. In the first year, we discovered what others before us discovered — policies do not always work.

Mike Brady, a Training Officer with the Lake Oswego (Ore.) Police Department, states that “just because there is a policy or law doesn’t mean the action will stop. Communication technology is so entrenched in our society now, especially with newer officers, that they do not know how to function without it. It is amazing what happens when our MDCs go down. Policing just about seizes for some of them.”

The Solution
As trainers, officers, supervisors, and managers, we have to assume that our law enforcement professionals will be driving with distractions. We don’t like to talk about it and the agency lawyers will surely cringe when they read this but if we are going to be safer behind the wheel, we must acknowledge this happens. Our nation’s finest have a job to do and that job will entail answering the radio, reading call details, looking down alleys and finding a specific vehicle just to name a few.

We may talk on the phone and sometimes we may be careless and read a text message or send a message from our phone and I have even heard worse which I will not go into here (but we’d love to see your comments below). The point is that the danger is there and we must take action and that action should be more than a policy or procedure. That may cover the agency legally but it does nothing in regards to the safety of officers.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has been very progressive in this area but it has not come without controversy. Sergeant David Thaw supervised the EVOC Unit for six years and explains that there were those who were nervous when they began training officers how to multi-task in a safer manner but the course has been highly effective in not only showing the officers the dangers but methods on how to conduct activities in a safer manner.

“We teach not to multi-task but at the same time, we know that people will do it anyhow so we teach a safer way to do it” states Thaw.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department conducts a one hour block in the classroom followed by a lengthy practical obstacle course with as many as 15 tasks that students have to complete inside the car before finishing the driving course. The instructor directs the tasks to the student. These tasks could be anything from typing on the computer and responding to the dispatcher to opening a piece of candy or a bottle of water and drinking it.

The course is done with and without the distractions and the tests are compared for the student.

Sergeant Thaw states that “we concentrate on focusing on driving and aiming high while doing any kind of task.”

The Future
Well over half of the states have some form of restrictions on the use of cell phones while driving and other states are taking an aggressive stand against the use of texting devices. As technology evolves, this danger is likely to grow for law enforcement and for the general public. Our officer involved collision investigations will begin to look at this issue even more closely and our driver training will adapt to yet another danger our men and women face behind the wheel.

Tips from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Sergeant David Thaw

• Know what and where your equipment is inside the car so you don’t have to look down or away
• Multi-task only in straight-aways and not in curves
• Always keep your eyes up and scanning before and during your task
• Create more following distances while tasking
• Plan the timing of your multi-tasking so you control when and where you do it
• If talking on the cell phone put people on hold or put the phone down when trying to turn, back or maneuver

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Course
The driving course consists of a variety of turns, curves, backing, lane changes, shuffle steering, and one handed driving while holding the microphone. A dispatcher actually gives out calls and asks questions which make it more realistic. The instructor in the car gives the tasks verbally and tries to time the tasks during tough maneuvers. The course takes 7-10 minutes to complete.

A Sample of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Task List

• Make a cell phone call
• Send a text message
• Open a bottle of water
• Drink some water
• Open and eat a tootsie roll (requires two hands usually)
• Change the channel on the police radio
• Change the channel on the Am/Fm radio
• Change or adjust a piece of clothing (such as take a hat off, unbutton a button, put gloves on or take off gloves, etc.)

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