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Back to Archives | Back to March 2012 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

The New In-Car Technology: Safer or More Dangerous on the Road?

By Earl M. Sweeney, Assistant Commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Safety; and Chair, IACP Highway Safety Committee

re you trying to stop your car on a slick surface? There is no need to pump the brakes anymore; antilock brakes will do it for you. Is someone coming up in your blind spot? No sweat; the new blind spot warning device optional on many vehicles today will alert you. Is visibility bad to the rear of your vehicle? Just check the dashboard image from your rearview camera. Are you following the car ahead too closely, or is a pedestrian in front of you? If you have intelligent cruise control or the pedestrian warning system, you will be alerted to apply the brakes. Starting to skid? An antiskid feature will apply braking to the opposite wheel to avert the skid. Is a collision impending? The onboard computers in some cars will add brake force to your pedal pressure and tighten the seat-belt retractors. If you actually crash, the computers will deploy the airbags and even send a message to alert emergency services.

Yes, today’s vehicles have more computing power on board than the first supercomputers in science labs. All this high-tech gadgetry should make driving safer than ever, but does it? Has it increased driver distraction to the point that driving is becoming more dangerous, not less?

And what of police officers whose patrol cars are effectively their offices for eight to twelve hours a day? Are today’s officers safer because of the abilities at their fingertips to scan license plates; locate addresses with global positioning systems (GPSs); track speeds by forward, rear-facing, and across-the-road radar or lidar; record stops on an in-car camera; obtain information on a car and its driver prior to stopping it and without going through dispatch; and operate the emergency lights and siren by voice command? Or is the officer actually endangered by some of the gadgetry in today’s patrol vehicles?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2009, one in every six traffic fatalities involved distracted driving. An estimated 16 percent of all crashes on U.S. highways involved distracted driving, and even these figures were probably underreported. 1 Drivers of police vehicles have been struck and killed by distracted drivers with a growing frequency, and police vehicle drivers have become distracted and caused serious crashes, too.

In a recent NHTSA survey, countries across the globe, including Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Great Britain, Hungary, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, now identify distraction in their motor vehicle crash information. Finland, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, and Switzerland track to varying degrees the role that cell phones play in crash involvement. Finland also records whether or not a text-messaging device was involved, and Japan even identifies whether the driver was sending or receiving a text and whether or not the text-messaging device was integrated into the vehicle.2

The next time you—as a law enforcement executive—see one of your police vehicles on the road, take notice of how often the officer is talking on a cellphone. Members of the public and some police officers as well are searching the web, downloading music, or sending emails as they drive. As these activities grow in popularity, vehicle manufacturers are trying to encourage customers to incorporate their connected lifestyles into their driving by adding more of these “infotainment” functions into their vehicles, often with little thought to the effect on driving behavior. Others allow motorists to listen to and send texts and post items to Twitter or Facebook.

Although many manufacturers require that the vehicle is not in motion when information is entered into a GPS system for direction, popular plug-in aftermarket devices contain no such safety features, and drivers are allowed to push small buttons and operate touch screens while driving at speeds of 45 to 120 feet per second or more.

One vehicle-integrated safety and security service, OnStar Corporation, now will read Facebook messages aloud to drivers and allow drivers to dictate posts to their Facebook accounts. A similar system in Ford vehicles reads drivers their text messages and Twitter updates and is programmed to send a variety of prerecorded replies. In some Hyundai models, drivers can now dictate and send texts verbally.

Some will argue that voice and hands-free systems are safer than typing on a small keypad or touch screen while driving, but a study by the Governors Highway Safety Association, funded by State Farm, indicated that “there is no conclusive evidence on whether hands-free cell phone use is less risky than hand-held use.”3

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood perhaps expressed it best in a recent interview with Consumer Reports when he said that carmakers “need to really think about all of these things that they’re putting in automobiles now and what impact they have on the driver’s ability to drive safely.”4

The same Consumer Reports issue recounted a drive one of its editors took in a 2012 vehicle, during which he was able to access an extended weather forecast, check stock quotes, perform web searches for nearby eating establishments, and press touch pad entries for additional information—still having to look at an in-dash screen instead of the road. The magazine tested functions in several popular vehicles and found in one that selecting a radio station preset took 5 steps and 5 seconds; in another, manually tuning to a new station took 6 steps and 10 seconds; and in a third, playing music on an iPod or similar device took 6 steps and 11 seconds.5 Remember that in 11 seconds, a vehicle traveling at 60 miles per hour will travel 968 feet.

It is not just the momentary distraction of locating and pressing a tiny button; it is the repetitive number of times drivers perform some of these functions to avail themselves of a car’s newfound interconnectedness. Consumer Reports says it believes “any system that requires drivers to take their eyes off the road for too long or engage in unnecessary distraction can be dangerous,” and asks, “Is it really necessary, for instance, to tweet or post to Facebook while driving?” The magazine urges consumers to use these devices sensibly, to set searches and destinations and send messages only while parked safely off the road, and to stay fully engaged with their driving.6

Now is the time for law enforcement agencies to take proactive steps before it is too late to address the coming epidemic of distracted driving, not only by the public law enforcement serves, but by the officers on duty. Some of the measures leaders can take include

  • revising the crash-reporting process and forms to better identify when distracted driving has caused a crash;

  • developing public service messages to warn motorists of the dangers of distracted driving and of law enforcement’s intention to enforce applicable statutes and ordinances;

  • adopting and enforcing distracted driving and electronic device policies that require officers to set a good example in their own driving;

  • incorporating these policies into in-service training and emergency vehicle operations courses; and

  • recognizing the interior of police vehicles as “cockpits” and considering disconnecting distracting devices and options that have little use on patrols, prohibiting the use of some consumer devices during patrols, and paying closer attention to the ergonomics of the police equipment that is installed in police vehicles.

Law enforcement leaders owe it to the public they serve and to their officers to control the distracted driving phenomenon before it controls them. ■


1NHTSA, “Distracted Driving 2009,” Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note, September 2010, DOT HS 811 379, 1–2, (accessed February 2, 2012).
2NHTSA, “Overview of Results from the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group Survey on Distracted Driving Data Collection and Reporting,” Traffic Safety Facts: Crash Stats, October 2010, DOTHS 811 404, 1–2, (accessed February 2, 2012).
3Governors Highway Safety Association, Distracted Driving: What Research Shows and What States Can Do, July 2011, (accessed February 3, 2012).
4“Connected Cars: A New Risk—New In-Car Services and Complex Controls Raise Safety Concerns,” Consumer Reports, October 2011, February 2, 2012).
5“Controls Gone Wild,” Consumer Reports, October 2011, (accessed February 2, 2012).
6“The New Wild West,” Consumer Reports, October 2011, (accessed January 23, 2012).

Please cite as:

Earl M. Sweeney, "The New In-Car Technology: Safer or More Dangerous on the Road?" Highway Safety Initiatives The Police Chief 79 (March 2012): 72–74.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 3, March 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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