Gadgets in vehicles are widely seen as distractions for drivers, especially in the minds of legislators and safety advocates who are attempting to limit the use of these devices for most drivers. Police officers and paramedics, however, are required to use these devices, such as dashboard computers, navigation systems, cellphones and sophisticated radios, as part of their job while driving at high speeds through traffic. According to an industry analyst with VDC Research Group, an estimated seventy-five percent of police cruisers now have onboard computers, a figure that has doubled in the last decade. He further estimates that about thirty percent of ambulances have this technology.
The drivers of emergency vehicles claim the technology improves their job capabilities dramatically, saving valuable seconds and providing instant access to critical information. They allow police officers to instantly check a person’s license plate number and allow ambulances to find an accident scene and report the status of a patient to a hospital before arrival. The distraction caused by technology also presents the possibility that an accident could occur; a life could be taken in route to saving one. For example, a sheriff’s deputy in Illinois was driving 35 miles per hour when a dispatcher radioed in with an assignment. The deputy entered the address into the mapping system and then looked up, too late to avoid hitting a sedan stopped in traffic; its driver was seriously injured. It is now a question as to whether the positive risks outweigh the negative.
The New York Fire Department, which coordinates the city’s largest ambulance system, stated its ambulance drivers are not supposed to use on-board computers while in traffic. Further, it is the role of the driver’s partner to use the devices and if they partner is attending to a patient, the driver should use the device before speeding off. Interviews with actual paramedics, however, show that they do use their on-board computers for information while driving. An assistant chief for emergency service operations at the department claims the technology is definitely making calls faster by about twenty or thirty seconds.
In response to the growing dangers of distracted driving, researchers at the University of New Hampshire are working to develop hands-free technology for police cars. The system would allow officers to use voice commands to operate the radio, sirens, lights, and even speak a license plate number into the on-board computer. To access the voice commands, the officer would only have to push a button on the steering wheel. This new technology has received a very positive response in police cruisers equipped with the new technology. Another system being developed is able to read the license plate numbers of cars behind and in front of police cars to check for unregistered plates or stolen cars. While the new technology sounds promising, the changes can be very expensive and lead to many areas not being able to afford the safer devices.