The term “distracted driving” typically conjures images of drivers splitting their attention between the road and a cell phone, which they might be using to talk, text, or use the internet. These types of distractions factor into a significant number of traffic accidents. Recent investigations have shown that law enforcement, in addition to enforcing distracted driving laws in many jurisdictions, may contribute to the problem. Technology like onboard computers may take police officers’ eyes off the road, leading to auto accidents.
An investigation by NBC5 news in Dallas, Texas found that, in the preceding two-year period, Dallas police officers had been involved in thirteen automobile accidents where distraction was a factor. Eight of those accidents occurred while the driver was using the patrol car’s onboard computer. Video footage reviewed by reporters included cars going off the road, and at least one police car rear-ending a vehicle at a stoplight while the officer was using the computer. Other cities in the Dallas-Forth Worth area have reportedly adopted strict policies regarding officers’ use of their onboard computers while driving. Arlington, Texas, for example, prohibits officers from texting, or from using their computers for anything except “one-button functions” while driving. The Dallas Police Department, in its response to the NBC5 story, also claims to have strict limits on officers’ computer use while driving.
Texas is not alone in dealing with this issue. An investigation by NBC Bay Area’s news team found that emergency drivers throughout California were involved in a distracted driving accident every other day, based on a review of California Highway Patrol reports from 2006 to 2011. Out of over 2.4 million collisions, emergency drivers, including ambulances, police vehicles, and fire engines, caused 1,053 crashes during that time, or almost fifteen per month. Drivers quoted in the reports admitted to using onboard computers or texting while driving. These investigations have gained the attention of a national police organization, which is considering recommending similar policies to its members.
In an Executive Order issued on October 1, 2009, President Obama announced a ban on text messaging while driving for all three million civilian employees of the federal government. The order directed all agencies of the Executive Branch to enact policies to implement the order within ninety days. It included an exemption, however, at the discretion of agency heads, for employees engaged in “protective, law enforcement, or national security” activities. In September 2010, several federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and NASA, added a prohibition on texting while driving for government contractors while driving on government business.
Liability for injuries and other damages caused by a police officer or other government employee may be limited by sovereign immunity, which restricts lawsuits brought against the government. States may waive immunity for specific types of claims, or subject prospective claims to review. The Missouri Tort Claims Act, for example, waives the state’s sovereign immunity for injuries directly resulting from a public employee’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle in connection with their employment.
Auto accident attorney Doug Horn is an advocate for safe driving in the greater Kansas City area. He represents the rights of people who have suffered injuries or lost loved ones due to the negligent or illegal conduct of others. Contact us today online or at (816) 795-7500 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.