Would Ban On Cellphones and PEDs Behind the Wheel Include the Police?

No distracting electronic devices in your average police cruiser. No, not at all.

In the wake of a multi-vehicle fatality accident in Missouri that the National Traffic Safety Board blames on a driver distracted by receiving text messages behind the wheel (even though their own report indicates other errors and inattentiveness by drivers contributed to severity of the the incident) the safety agency is recommending that all 50 states ban the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices while driving. Here is the NTSB’s recommendation in that regard:

  1. (1) Ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers; (2) use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration model of high visibility enforcement to support these bans; and (3) implement targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and enforcement, and to warn them of the dangers associated with the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices while driving. (H-11-XX)

As worded the recommendations are problematic. My Android phone has a built in navigation app that works better than the nav systems in some cars that I’ve reviewed. As written, the recommendations would make making a call or checking a message on your phone illegal but because it’s meant to support the driving task, would using the navigation app on the same phone also be prohibited?

Also, they’re going to have to rigorously define “nonemergency” and “emergency” because not all emergencies in life are life threatening. But let’s be realistic. We all know that any use by regular folks who aren’t police or public employees will be considered “nonemergency” and subject to citation.

Actually, speaking of police and nonemergencies brings up an interesting question. Second Amendment activist Dave Koppel once said that he was fine with gun control laws just as long as they applied equally to everyone. If the gun is what’s dangerous, if it’s a potential threat to public safety for me to carry a gun into a courtroom or a church, then it’s equally dangerous for a police officer to do likewise. Koppel said he was fine with gun control laws as long as they were equally applied to law enforcement officers.

I’d make the same argument about cellphone and electronic device use behind the wheel. Ban cellphone and PED use behind the wheel only if the same laws apply to nonemergency police and government use as well. If cellphones and PEDs are distracting to drivers, what of the average police cruiser that is crammed to the gills with radios and computers and radar devices and all sorts of distraction inducing electronic gizmos?  When laptop computers started being installed in police cars some LEOs reported that they’d use the keyboard and drive with their knees. All of the studies that the NTSB cites that say that the vast majority of drivers are indeed distractable make no special exception for LEOs. If it’s dangerous for me to use a cellphone behind the wheel when it’s not an emergency, it’s just as dangerous for a cop to talk on the radio behind the wheel when there’s no emergency. How is a radar gun not a personal electronic device?

Apologists for LEOs will say that police have special training that make them capable of avoiding distractions that hamper regular folks. The problem with that argument is that the studies on distracted driving indicate that avoiding distraction is not a learned skill. Some folks can multitask behind the wheel, some folks can’t. Going to a police academy doesn’t change inherent abilities.

Of course there’s virtually no chance for equal justice in this regard. I’m fairly certain that any proposed legislation will not only exempt “emergency” use, but it will define terms in such a manner that any use of cell phones, radios or other electronic devices by police officers, emergency or otherwise, when behind the wheel will be perfectly legal. Don’t believe me? At my local city hall there are signs all over the entrance telling visitors that cellphones are not allowed in the building, because it also houses a district court. When you walk into the building the first thing are likely to see is the security guard texting someone on his cellphone. The public employees who work in that building are exempt from that regulation. Of course, even if it were to be made just as illegal for cops to use phones and PEDs behind the wheel as for regular “civilians”, I’m not naive. Cops are not going to issue cellphone tickets to fellow cops or other public employees. The more likely scenario is that some cop will use a cellphone, radio or some other personal electronic device to let the station know that he’s stopping you for using your cellphone behind the wheel.

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