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Is distracted driving becoming a problem for Wisconsin police officers?

On behalf of Jordan Blad at Alpert & Fellows

The technology that Wisconsin police officers use while patrolling, such as cellphones and in-car computers, may create an unsafe level of distraction.

Distracted driving remains a prominent problem in America. In 2012, distracted drivers caused 421,000 injuries and 3,328 deaths, according to Unfortunately, almost anyone can give in to distraction, especially as technology becomes more advanced and ever-present. Even Manitowoc police officers may be at risk for inattentive driving as their use of job-related technology increases.

Dangerous technology

The Wausau Daily Herald reports that law enforcement authorities regularly use a variety of in-vehicle technology, including police radios, cellphones and computers. These devices play an essential role in many daily tasks, as they allow officers to write citations and reports, get information, view location data and track calls that they must respond to.

At the same time, these devices can introduce a serious risk of distraction. While many police departments have policies discouraging officers from using cellphones and other technology while driving, the same departments often don’t implement strict bans because these activities may be considered necessary in emergency situations. In the absence of explicit bans, officers may sometimes make questionable decisions.

Performance impairments

There have been a few incidents in which distraction has notably affected an officer’s performance. At least two deputies have struck lights in Marathon County intersections while paying too much attention to their in-car computers. The potential for more serious distracted driving accidents that affect other drivers or road users, such as pedestrians or bicyclists, is obvious.

The Wausau Daily Herald notes that some police officers receive specialized training on managing technology while driving. For instance, at one facility, officers can drive on a closed course while speaking with a dispatcher. This may give officers a better sense of what distractions they can manage and what distractions they should avoid. Still, given the brain’s inability to effectively multitask, this kind of training might not actually help officers drive more safely while distracted.

Misconceptions on multitasking

The National Safety Council reports that when people think they are effectively handling two distinct tasks at once, their brains are actually toggling quickly between the two tasks. This results in moments of distraction and associated performance impairments that can prove dangerous.

The NSC reports that talking on a cellphone blinds a driver to up to half of the immediate environment and slows reaction times more than legal intoxication does. Presumably, talking on a radio creates a similar level of distraction. Using an in-car computer could be even more impairing, since it creates a visual and manual distraction in addition to cognitive distraction. This means that the use of job-related technology may leave law enforcement authorities dangerously distracted.

If a driver’s distraction results in an accident, the driver may be found negligent and held responsible for any injuries that result from the accident. While accident victims may be reluctant to seek compensation from first responders or other public servants, these people owe a duty of care to other road users, just like every other driver does. Anyone who has been hurt in an accident that a distracted driver caused should speak with an attorney about possible legal remedies.