Driving Distracted (With a Badge?)

Matt Richtel at the The New York Times talks about the ever growing number of police, fire fighters, paramedics, etc that are weaving through traffic at high speeds while talking on a cell phone or radio and typing on a laptop or navigation system.

Ambulances and police cars are becoming increasingly wired. Some 75 percent of police cruisers have on-board computers, a figure that has doubled over the last decade, says David Krebs, an industry analyst with the VDC Research Group. He estimates about 30 percent of ambulances have such technology.

There is no question that these groups of people are at the absolute top of the list of folks that have good reason to use these technologies while in motion (do you want an ambulance to pull over to input a destination on their way to your house?) and the article even notes an estimated savings of 20-30 seconds per call.

So what has to happen to keep these technologies safe? Well, in my mind, exactly the same thing that has to happen for consumers…simplified UIs, voice controls and hardware integration.  The NYT article mentions a University of New Hampshire project (federally backed with $34million) is working on hands-free technology for police cars (and a quick Google search reveals other projects), but I can’t seem to find which, if any, of the major voice control providers they are working with.

It would only make sense that the technology being used is the same as is used in consumer applications (this is one case where the demands are essentially the same between consumers and law enforcement or fire fighting).  That being said, I’m a bit surprised there isn’t a more readily available solution already on the market.  Maybe this is one area with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood might look to impose some government regulation (just speculating, but these vehicles are a very logical place for the government to start).

Though there seem to be very few reports of technology-distraction related accidents the article provides a number of anecdotes from law enforcement and paramedics of people injured or almost injured by a driver distracted by in-vehicle technology of some sort.

In April 2008, an emergency medical technician in West Nyack, N.Y., looked at his GPS screen, swerved and hit a parked flatbed truck. The crash sheared off the side of the ambulance and left his partner, who was in the passenger seat, paralyzed.

Apparently in many places the laws against cell phones and texting while driving do not apply to these types of civil servants.  I, for my part, am totally ok with that… What do you think? Should a police officer’s navigation system be locked out when moving over 5mph (assuming he doesn’t have a partner in the passenger seat)?

Click through to the NYT for the full article.

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