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Highway Safety Initiatives

Distracted Driving: Law Enforcement’s Achilles’ Heel

By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP

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istracted driving in the United States is a serious and escalating problem that was responsible for 16 percent of the 33,808 motor vehicle fatalities in 2009.1 It was attributed to 11 percent of the 45,230 drivers involved in fatal collisions.2 Cell phones, which were either being used or were in the driver’s presence at the time of collision, were the reported distraction by nearly one in every five drivers killed in distracted driving crashes.3

While the mention of distracted driving today conjures up images of a driver talking on a cell phone or texting on a smartphone, distracted driving comprises considerably more than that—it actually is focusing on anything other than driving, while driving. It encompasses such diverse behaviors as adjusting climate controls, changing a radio station or CD, drinking, eating, looking for a specific business, picking up a dropped item, talking to a passenger, and rubbernecking. The duties of a police officer can involve even more types of multitasking that divert an officer’s attention away from driving.These activities can include activating emergency equipment; attempting to prevent citations/reports or a briefcase from flying off the passenger seat during a pursuit or an expedited response; entering queries into the mobile data terminal (MDT); recording the location of a call for service or the description of a wanted person or vehicle; and talking on the police radio.

A number of efforts have been initiated to address the myriad varieties of distracted driving. Last year, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that essentially prohibited federal employees from texting when using government-owned electronic equipment while driving any vehicle.4Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has held two distracted driving summits and spurred the development of a sample texting while driving law5 to provide guidance to states that may be considering enacting or amending their statutes. Currently, all drivers are banned from texting while driving in 30 states, the District of Columbia (D.C.), and Guam; and from using handheld cell phones in eight states, D.C., and the Virgin Islands.6 These mandates vary widely in the acts outlawed, the drivers covered, and whether enforcement is primary or secondary. However, virtually all of those laws that apply to all drivers exempt law enforcement officers from their coverage; this includes the president’s executive order and the sample texting while driving law.

As their experience increases, police officers may come to regard themselves as invincible. Well-intended laws that allow officers to engage in hazardous behavior from which others are forbidden to participate may contribute to that feeling, do more harm than good to officer safety, and contribute to the perception that officers engage in hypocritical behavior by enforcing the same prohibitions against driving while texting or making handheld cell phone calls that they appear to flout. Interestingly, the average age of police officers accidentally killed in 2009 was 35 years old with 9 years’ service; between 2000 and 2009, it was 38 years old with 10 years’ service.7 Drivers aged 30 to 39 years accounted for the largest group of reportedly distracted drivers in fatal crashes involving cell phone distraction.8

Recognizing the perils of distracted driving, law enforcement leaders are especially concerned about the safety of those whom they lead and have developed effective policies to permit officers to more safely discharge their duties. In that vein, the state of Washington enacted legislation, effective June 10, 2010, to make texting and handheld cell phone use a primary offense. Even though law enforcement is exempt from this legislation, the Washington State Patrol proactively applied it to its troopers by agency order.9 Furthermore, the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) mandated, as of October 4, 2010, hands-free voice communication for its troopers, although the state of Florida has not enacted a statute in this regard.10 Finally, the city of Cheyenne, Wyoming, enacted last year an ordinance allowing only hands-free cell phone use, from which its police officers were not exempted.11

An examination of the pertinent policies of the FHP, the Illinois State Police (ISP), and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) yield some guidelines that may assist police chief executives who are considering the development of such policies.

  • The FHP’s new Wireless Voice/Data Communications policy clearly sets forth the overarching principle surrounding the usage of a cell phone or of another wireless communication device: “Members must be able to maintain both hands on the steering wheel while the vehicle is in motion and using the device.”12
  • FHP and ISP policies cover both agency and personally owned wireless voice/data communication devices either in agencyowned vehicles or in privately owned vehicles when troopers are on duty or conducting official business.
  • Both FHP and ISP policies permit handsfree voice communication on cell phones or on other wireless communication devices although ISP troopers may not use them during Code 2 or Code 3 (lights and siren) responses13 and may use only police radios for communication during Code 2 or Code 3 calls.14 LVMPD officers may not type messages or use cell phones during Code 3 responses.15
  • The FHP and the LVMPD have separate rules governing the use of MDTs, while the ISP permits its troopers to use, while driving, MDTs to query law enforcement databases, except when they are responding to Code 2 or Code 3 calls.
  • FHP troopers can neither dial an outgoing call nor send or read a text message or e-mail while a vehicle is in motion. Similarly, the ISP16 and the LVMPD prohibit texting or sending and receiving e-mail in moving vehicles.
  • FHP allows the use of voice-activated navigation systems that are not incorporated into the MDT while a vehicle is moving, but it requires the vehicle be stopped to enter or modify the system.

Aside from agencies’ promulgating and enforcing well-thought-out policies, technology holds promise for improving the safety of police officers performing myriad essential duties while driving. For instance, the University of New Hampshire has been developing hands-free technology for police cruisers through the use of voice-activated commands. “I can literally drive down the road, speak without holding the microphone, and turn on the lights and sirens without ever looking at the equipment,” said Captain John G. LeLacheur of the New Hampshire State Police.17

If agencies uniformly connect lights, sirens, and other critical equipment in cruisers to steering wheel switches, officers will be able to operate such equipment with little distraction and will be able to discharge their duties safely. ■


1National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA), “Distracted Driving,” Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note, September 2010,
DOT HS 811 379, 1, (accessed October 12, 2010).
3Ibid., 2.
4Exec. Order No. 13513, “Federal Leadership on Reducing Text Messaging While Driving,” 74 Fed.Reg. 51225 (October 6, 2009), (accessed October 13, 2010).
5U.S. Department of Transportation, “Sample Law to Prohibit Texting While Driving,” February 2009, (accessed October 13, 2010).
6NHTSA, “State Laws on Distracted Driving,” (accessed October 13, 2010).
7FBI, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2009, October 2010, table 57, (accessed November 2, 2010).
8NHTSA, “Distracted Driving 2009,” 1 and 3.
9IACP Highway Safety Committee, “Midyear Meeting Minutes, June 16–19, 2010,” Branson, Missouri, (accessed October 15, 2010).
10Jerome Burdi, “FHP Troopers Barred from Talking on Handheld Cell Phones while Driving,” The Palm Beach Post, October 5, 2010, (accessed October 15, 2010).
11Driving while Using Cellular Telephone Prohibited—Exceptions, Cheyenne, Wyoming, Municipal Code, §10.24.170, (accessed November 3, 2010).
12Florida Highway Patrol, “Wireless Voice/Data Communications,” policy number 7.10, October 4, 2010, (accessed October 27, 2010).
13According to “Illinois State Police Directive OPS-081, Emergency Response Driving,” a Code 3 response is for an “emergency call,” which is defined as “an incident or call in which the possibility of death, great personal injury, or the prevention or apprehension of forcible felons exists and a rapid response by a law enforcement may reduce the seriousness of the incident.” A Code 2 response is for an incident not qualifying as an emergency call, but still warranting an expedited response. See (accessed October 8, 2010).
14“Illinois State Police Directive OPS-081, Emergency Response Driving,” 5.
15Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, “GO—35—09, Safe Driving Policy,” December 5, 2009, 3 and 5, (accessed November 4, 2010).
16“Illinois State Police Directive ADM-019, Wireless Voice/Data Communications Equipment,” November 20, 2008, (accessed October 30, 2010).
17Matt Richtel, “Gadgets in Emergency Vehicles Seen as Peril,” The New York Times, March 10, 2011, (accessed November 8, 2010).

Please cite as:

Richard J. Ashton, "Distracted Driving: Law Enforcement’s Achilles’ Heel" Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 77 (December 2010): 116–118, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 12, December 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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