Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A distracting debate over police accidents

In recent years we've witnessed a great deal of demagoguery over "distracted driving" and a push for new, punitive traffic laws to reduce it. Longtime readers know I've found much of this rhetoric unconvincing: "Distracted" driving caused problems long before cell phones or texting, and I see no significant difference between talking on the phone while driving and putting on makeup, eating fast food from a drive-in, fiddling with the GPS, singing along with the radio, disciplining kids in the backseat, thinking about problems at work, or any number of the myriad other distractions drivers face. Plus, the introduction of cell phones and texting has corresponded with an overall national decline in traffic injuries while the population has risen, which doesn't seem to jibe with claims that expanded cell phone use or texting pose a significantly greater risk than all the other distractions out there.

Critics trumpet studies that speaking on the phone is as dangerous as driving with .08 blood alcohol content, but the same studies say hands-free devices are just as dangerous, which means even having a conversation with a passenger in the car would be just as distracting as driving drunk! (The dirty little secret is that driving at .08 isn't all that dangerous - most people who do it never have an accident, and most DWI deaths involve drivers with much higher BACs.)

My personal view is that the blame for human beings being distracted generally lies not with whatever specific thing they're momentarily distracted by but the simple fact that humans, by nature, are distractable and those prone to be distracted - more often young people and inexperienced drivers - will find something to be distracted by because of a general lack of  maturity and mental focus.

That said, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and if cities like Austin are going to impose texting bans, one thing that's never made sense to me is the bold hypocrisy of putting friggin' laptops in police cars which are far more distracting than any of the things just mentioned. According to Austin's KVUE-TV:
[Austin police] officers were involved in 741 crashes between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2010.  Officers were found at-fault in nearly half of those crashes.  Nearly 20 percent of the officer-involved crashes were caused by distracted driving.  Officers were using their in-car computers in more than a third of the distracted driving crashes.
So somewhere around 50 of the 741 crashes over a three-year span were caused by "distracted driving" by police, as was the case of this officer who had two distracted driving crashes at the same intersection in a matter of months, both times while fiddling with gadgetry in her car. Fifty over three years' time seems like a small number to me, but in the scheme of things so does the number of accidents caused by texting in the car. So what is the agency doing about the problem? Again from KVUE:
Lt. Cochran says Senior Police Officer Ryan Huling and others in APD’s Tech Unit are making on-screen display changes to make it easier for officers like Dunn to see their computer screens without taking their eyes off the road.  Changes include bigger, bolder font and quick keys.

“To run a plate you had to push two buttons,” Lt. Cochran says.  “Now you only have to push one button, which sounds a lot, doesn't sound like much of a change but it is a big change when you're trying to do that.”

Officers are discouraged from typing while driving. Other changes include an ergonomically correct, swing-out mount that keeps officers from having to lean over to use their computers. 
A couple of things stand out to me from those statements. First, police are "discouraged" from typing while driving, but for the rest of us in Austin even using a Blackberry while waiting at a stoplight or while stuck in traffic is verboten - banned by law and subject to criminal penalties. So the gander receives finger wagging "discouragement" while the goose is cooked.

Moreover, it's absurd to crow that having to push one button instead of two is some sort of "big change." In fact, it's a lie. Officers must push at least seven buttons, because they must enter the license plate number in order to run a plate. One more keystroke makes little difference - the biggest distraction is having the laptop in the vehicle in the first place and rigging it so police can use it while the vehicle is in motion. The solution isn't more rules or "bigger, bolder fonts" but a simple technological fix: The computer simply shouldn't operate unless the gearshift is in the "park" position if "distracted driving" is such a great concern.

Even more ironic, reports KVUE, "Despite all of the technological and ergonomic changes, they say many officers seem most excited about a new addition to their patrol cars: cup holders." But there's little doubt eating and drinking while driving is at least as distracting as their in-car gadgetry, so they're introducing new distractions while making an insignificant change to reduce in-car distractions already identified. Instead of installing cup holders, why not simply make a rule disallowing officers from eating and drinking while the car is in motion? Wouldn't that also reduce distractions?

Again, I think too much is being made of the risks from "distracted driving" and I'm not of the view that a massive new wave of criminal laws is needed. But if police are going to enforce municipal texting bans or give tickets for talking on a cell phone in a school zone, it's disingenuous for them to have a laptop installed in their car that they're freely allowed to operate while the vehicle is in motion. It's not the danger that bothers me so much, it's the hypocrisy.


Anonymous said...


Though I normally agree with your positions (Heck, I almost always agree with your position) and, again, concur that criminalizing texting is just plain out wrong, I believe you are incorrect that modern phones aren't a greater distraction (and more dangerous) than coffee sipping, nose blowing, and station changing in an auto (Though make-up might just be the exception).

In recent years I have come to find that whenever traffic seems to slow behind another auto doing 10 MPH below the speed limit while weaving between the lane markers, it's not the thirst quencher but the chatter box in action causing the problem, usually deep in conversation or worse, texting like mad - one can tell by the bobbing head in action along with the one hand driving. And it keeps getting worse.

As for the officers being stupid, I've had an associate rear end a civilian doing just what we are discussing, working the on-board computer when he should have been driving (No one has ever claimed a cop is sharper than the average bear).

It's not about the quick call to mom telling her "we're en route and we'll be home for dinner", but it's about the complex business discussion that literally takes your mind off of the driving and prioritizes the phone conversation leaving your brain - and the auto - on all but cruise control.

As for cops causing accidents, once again it will take a major law suit ($$$) before the idiots in management fix the problem.

It's great to have you back, by the way. Really missed my daily dosage of Grits (No disrespect to the guest bloggers intended)! :~)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:37, then what explains the fact that during the period of texting's rapid expansion, injuries from traffic accidents are declining?

And of course I never said the cops using computers were "stupid"; they're following orders. Individual cops didn't make the decision to put computers in the car, that was management.

Thanks for the kind words, btw. I was glad to be away (and would have been pleased to have been gone for about 6 weeks longer!), but it's nice to be missed. :)

D.A. Confidential said...

I second the welcome back. Having just had a vacation myself, I know how crucial they are... and how short they always seem.

Grits, I understand your point and it does seem a little like we have inconsistent rules. But remember that for every rule there is an exception and a well-established one in the law is the "necessity" defense. While I can't, for the life of me, understand why a businessman can't pull over to make his call, or why I can't buzz my wife from the office to have her start my martini, I'm not sure it's practical for cops to have to pull over every time they want to run a plate. Seems like if they did, and the plate comes back as a triple-murdering child snatcher, the car they just ran is already long gone. Seems to negate the point of running it in the first place, or am I missing something?

Don said...

Also, you can't "see the computer" without taking your "eyes off the road". Unless you have more than one set of eyes. Physically impossible. I agree with Grits. Park it if you're gonna play with the gadgetry. Cop or no cop.
They are excited about cup holders? Bet they would get orgasmic about a portable doughnut machine. (-:

Gritsforbreakfast said...

DAC, for years they had dispatchers run the plates before they had the computers and the world didn't seem to end. Maybe the computers are just a bad idea.

Anonymous said...

I've never met a cop who was born with enhanced multitasking powers. Nor does a tin badge magically allow you to grow another pair of eyes. Why not just call the frigging lp# in, like they did in days of yore? And when will our dumbass politicians stop trying to cure every social ill with oppressive, Orwellian legislation? It's getting to the point where walking to your mailbox constitutes several misdemeanors and at least one felony. Texting while driving is really stupid, but so is typing while driving, regardless of whether or not the state lets you strut around in a blue uniform with a gun. Don't DWT, buy a hands free unit for your cell, and call the lp# in. How hard was that?

Anonymous said...


As I believe you have remarked previously, correlation and causation are not necessarily the same. Though accidents have gone down, the rate would have even been lower but for the ubiquity of cellphone use. Those who use cellphones may have double the accident rate of those who don't. see Hahn and Prieger: The Impact of Driver Cell Phone Use on Accidents (2006). They do concur, as I do for what it matters, with you that phone bans are not necessarily effective.

My apologies if my poor wording inferred that you said cops are stupid for using terminals; it's I who states that cops are being stupid using computers while rolling. They DON'T have to use them while underway but choose to do so...and an idiotic management condones it. As for dispatch, in many cases they are dispatched via the terminal. It allows for prioritization of calls by the officer and minimizes radio traffic (historically a major problem for any decent sized force). Good news is that the minimized traffic allows officers to better pay attention to what is going on with fellow officers that may need back-up, paying greater heed to "officer needs assistance" voice traffic, depending on the department's radio system, channels available, etc. Reports are also completed on them.

Terminal use is a management issue that, as was reflected in the original story, is not being efffectively addressed by some. Another classic example of "I'm a cop and I know best" philosophy in action. :~)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:34, correlation is not causation, but it is certainly curious that in the time that texting has gone from zero to ubiquitous - especially for smartphone users and youth - injuries from accidents continue to decline, and at what I can tell at similar rates to previous years.

Perhaps the study you cite has its own correlation/causation problems. Maybe those who would use cell phones or text while driving are more likely to engage in distracting behaviors anyway - if my daughter wasn't on the phone, e.g., she might well be putting on her makeup. I'm less likely to do either. (Or to use an old-school example: One of my close friends from high school used to do air drum solos along with the thumping music in his car and once had a rear-ender as a result, but as of the last time I rode with him he'd abandoned the practice.)

Your other points about the in-car terminals and radio traffic are well taken, but just because departments have CHOSEN to manage their employees that way doesn't mean it's wise to do so. It would be easy enough to disallow their use unless the car is in "park" - preferably by adjusting the technology instead of just making a rule that would then be as routinely violated as the texting ban.

Anonymous said...


Concur with the general theory of a lock-out but, as with many specific laws (such as mandatory arrests for domestic violence cases), it would prevent the needed exception. Would make for an interesting study though. Any stimulus funding still available? Nuh, this is Texas, and the Gov would probably defer. :~)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I am one of these can’t chew gummers, however in 36 years of driving I have yet to be involved in a traffic accident. I am as guilty as all are of utilizing the convenience of my cell phone in the car every single day and can honestly say that my propensity to be distracted has increased 10 fold. Driving through my own neighborhood I went through a stop sign. Driving down the highway I glanced down at my phone and looked up to narrowly avoid the driver ahead of me that braked.
I have been lucky and that’s a fact. It isn’t safe and that’s a fact. I’m a very safe driver compared to practically anyone I know regardless of my admissions of unsafe driving practices. I cannot explain the reduction in accidents except the possibility in Texas could be that so many involved in accidents may have been guilty of driving on a suspended license on both sides of the coin because of our drivers safety responsibility laws and opted to just take their licks and roll on.
Whatever the case may be I agree whole heartedly that police driving while computing is just as bad and in truth probably much worse and the practice should probably be stopped, now I have to worry every time I see a police car approaching me from behind for all the wrong reasons.
I have driven while drinking, eating and parenting but I truly never once felt that it affected my ability to drive safely, but cell phones do and I have taken my own mishaps as a reason to simply be more careful and have been.
As for 12:09, are you talking about the old printed up stimulus or the new printed up stimulus because the new stimulus is worth less, or should I say becoming (worthless).

Anonymous said...


In this day and age (and considering my own age), I'll take whatever stimulus I can get! :~)

rodsmith said...

there is a very easy solution to the problem of law enforcement distration of trying to operatate all the new equipment in the vehicle! put TWO officers back in the car. one to DRIVE the other to handle the equipment.

take those job placments being taken up by 100 deputy chiefs and other useless positons and PUT THEM back in uniform and BACK IN THE CARS serving the public.