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Columns : In My Sights

Distracted Driving

Too many officers are paying more attention to what’s going on inside their car rather than outside on the street.

March 01, 2006  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

The other day a friend of mine had a rear-ender on duty that was caused by his responding to his MDT (Mobile Distracting Terminal) or MDC (Moving Destruction Computer) or whatever they are called.

Fortunately for his agency, it had long since solved this problem by writing a general order commanding that officers not use the MDT while in motion. Being human, the officers still do anyway and still have wrecks. But now, the agency administrators can Pontius Pilate-like wash their hands of the responsibility and cluck about how great their department would be without all those darn cops screwing things up.

Man, have times changed. I remember when the greatest distraction faced by a crime fighter on patrol was the coming of warm days and lightly clad bodies tossing Frisbees and catching rays. Multi-tasking in those days meant talking on the radio, writing down the address of your call, and trying to hear the score on the AM radio; all while scanning the immediate area for criminals, traffic violations, suspicious activity, and the aforementioned bikinied sun worshippers.

In the "bad old days," many agencies wouldn't allow AM radios in patrol units because they feared it would distract the occupant who needed to be attentive to the environment around him. I was even taught to keep the driver's side window down when on patrol no matter how cold or hot it was outside when doing residential or business patrol. After all, we hunt with our eyes and ears.

Today, the CD/MP3/AM/FM radio is the least of the distractions inside police cars. Officers patrol in cockpit-like vehicles with portables blaring, cell phones ringing, Macs beeping, the Foo Fighters singing, a quarter-pounder dripping, air conditioning blowing, radar guns flashing, and babies crying. OK, I went a little too far with that last one. But notice all these distractions are inside the car!

We have cities that won't allow their citizens to talk on cell phones while driving, yet their officers are driving around in a totally distracting environment. The bad guys are "out there," the other moving motor vehicles are "out there," but our attention is "in here." Somewhere along the way we have lost sight of the primary function of the patrol car.

All this leads me to my point: 2006 may turn out to be the year of the accidental police death. Accidental deaths of police officers relative to deaths by assault have been increasing each year and, looking at the first quarter of this year, I say we need get our attention back to what's happening outside our cars.

Aviators once faced a similar problem. They had too many things to watch inside and out, too many instruments that needed to be scanned, and just plain too many things to attend to. And during the Vietnam War, it was discovered there were too many things for a fighter pilot to attend to inside the aircraft. The solution was simple: train the pilot to scan constantly and never fixate on one instrument and give the fighter pilots all relevant data in a manner that passively forces them to stay aware of the possible threats "out there;" this technology is called a Heads Up Display (HUD), and it will eventually find its way to patrol cars.

Until then, we need to practice our scanning techniques, reduce our multi-tasking whenever possible, and remind ourselves daily that we are going hunting and need as many of our senses in the game as possible.

Dave Smith is the creator of the "Buck Savage" series and a former law enforcement officer from Arizona. Currently, he is the Lead Instructor for Calibre Press' Street Survival seminar.

Tags: Officer Safety


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