Whenever a police officer gets themselves into a bit of a mess we often hear or read this comment;
Police officers are public servants from whom we expect the highest standards..
This of course is correct and rightly so. We are public servants, we uphold the law and take an oath to act with impartiality and are bound by a code of ethics that demands integrity and honesty. Our behaviour, if we are to be trusted and have the confidence of the public, has to be exemplary.
This week is #RoadSafetyWeek and as you would expect I have been pushing out messages to support this campaign along with #DontStreamAndDrive, #Fatal4 and others. Whenever I engage in a determined effort to tackle the use of phones by drivers I am pretty much always challenged about the use of radios by police officers.
“Why can police use their radios?”
“Surely police using their radios is just as dangerous”
“One rule for us and another for the cops”
“If I was doing that I’d get a ticket”
This is only a sample of the comments that I get back and in some ways you have to agree with them. Yes we are trained to a higher standard but the risks and dangers are still there and to be honest the ‘because we are better trained drivers’ just doesn’t wash with many people at all. The police aren’t the only drivers on the road trained to a high standard. Over the years the IAM have trained countless people on how to be better and safer drivers.
So what makes us so special? In reality nothing. We are not special at all so why do you get a ticket for using a phone but we use our radios without an issue? First of all there is a difference between a phone and a radio. It is covered in the mobile phone legislation where it makes a distinction between a mobile phone and a two-way radio. The legislation then creates exemptions for certain frequencies. I understand this was to ensure that government and private organisaions that routinely use two way radio e.g. police, ambulance and taxi drivers, could still do so. This was fairly simple for the police when the personal radios we used operated on the UHF frequencies. They were a radio. Nothing more and nothing less. Then we had the introduction of the TETRA system and things got a little more complicated because these devices are primarily a two-way radio but can also be used like a phone. They also looked much more like a phone. Many arguments arose about this but the frequencies used still fell into a band that is legal. Even before TETRA the police were starting to build hands free functionality into their patrol vehicles, especially so for traffic vehicles that often had a VHF set fitted within them. This practice has continued and most vehicles now have this capability.
So the bare bones of this are that using a hand held mobile phone whilst driving is illegal. Using a two radio (frequency exemptions permitting) is not. However, there is no overridding exemption and when the police use their radios their driving standard has to be maintained. If it falls below the required standards then prosecution may follow. Here lies the rub though. If we forget frequencies and function and simply look at both devices there are many similarities. They are a communication device that can be hand held and can create a distraction for the driver. They are both capable of being operated handsfree but the majority of the time a police officer uses PTT (push to talk). This requires the officer to be hands on. That said the radio is generally affixed to the officers body armour and can be let go of in an instant should both hands be needed on the wheel. It also doesn’t fall to the floor as a mobile phone would. Whilst the radio has a screen it is not integral to the operation and nor does it need to be viewed. A phone on the other hand could be dropped but creates that secondary distraction. Where is it? Is it in your lap or the footwell. Has the screen smashed? In this footage from the USA the driver is using a mobile phone and despite the situation she gets herself into she does not let go of the phone at all.
The two-way radio clearly needs less input than a phone and operates differently but in light of smart handsfree technology it could also be argued that a totally voice controlled phone is safer.
I blogged recently about the mobile phone legislation and how, by allowing handsfree operation, it appeared to have focussed entirely on the importance of having the drivers hands on the wheel.* If that is correct and was seen as the danger that drove the legislation then the same can be said for any other device that operates in a similar way regardless of frequency. I can imagine this was a tough decision though as a blanket ban was going to cause huge issues for countless 999 organisations and others. The net effect would have taken every taxi driver and courier off the road overnight. It would seem therefore that practical, financial and employment issues stepped in over outright road safety. There was a trade off.
*What this did was ignore the fact that eyes on the road and mind on the road are also essential.
Police and road safety organisations all encourage no distractions in the driving environment at all. We encourage people to turn their phone off or pull over at the side of the road and park safely before using their phone. Whilst they do that the police officer or taxi driver passes by using a radio without an issue and this creates a disparity that angers many. There is of course the issue of urgency. The phone call from the dentist or from your boss is generally not life or death. The messages a police officer gets passed often are. I’m sure you’d agree that it would be a farcical situation for an officer to ignore being shouted on the radio. Instead they pull over in a safe place, park, stop and then speak to the control room to be given an emergency that they could already be half way to if they hadn’t stopped.
So what makes a taxi drivers call urgent? Can it be viewed in the same light? Many taxi’s now operate on different systems altogether and in the case of Uber is entirely mobile phone based. The latter is another argument and blog entirely.
However, we are also in a place of increasing technology and information within our vehicles. On a recent TV program a medical technician driving an ambulance was seen to be looking down and reading out loud the detail of their next job on a screen fitted to the vehicle. We also know from the program that he was not on his own. So why is the screen fitted to the ambulance in a way that the driver can see it and read it whilst in motion? Are we putting temptation and distraction in the drivers way? Setting them up to fail and increasing the risk of road collisions? Many police officers in the UK now carry tablets. Some may hook up to cars. The ones issued in my force don’t but if we look to the US many of their patrol cars have a full size laptop fitted to the dash. If we then add all the ANPR screens and information in police cars there are additional distractions that can pull the drivers attention from the road. Even more so if single crewed.
To add further fuel to the debate there have been a number of occasions where police officers have been caught using mobile phones whilst driving. In this situation the officer was on police land as detailed in the report. Here an officer in Nottingham is reported to have been using a phone whilst driving.
It’s not surprising really that many drivers cry foul when caught using their phone. There is a double standard engendered here either by poor behaviour or legislation. This creates a ‘Don’t do as I do. Do as I say’ scenario.
The scales are set with ultimate road safety on one side and practicality/financial issues on the other. Every death or serious injury on the roads is something to avoid and if we can enact legislation that reduces them we should. However, it does have to be tempered with common sense. There are practical solutions. If all police officers were double crewed then the passenger could handle all the radio traffic and information in the car. That said the current staffing levels mean this would create a huge issue for policing and communities. Yet as we can tell from the ambulance situation above, even with two people in the vehicle the distraction is still there and the driver can be drawn to it like a moth to flame.
As technology becomes increasingly mobile it is adding burdens to the driver in the car. The police and many other organisations both public and private are adding technology and screens that could potentially distract the driver. Mobile phones have rapidly evolved and provide countless ways for all drivers to be distracted other than by the traditional calls and texts.
The bottom line is that any distraction whatsoever is dangerous and could lead to death or serious injury. Whilst police officers can use a radio legally they are still entirely responsible for the standard of their driving. We also know that should that standard slip then they can expect the full weight of the law crushing down on them because of the position they hold and will be held to the highest standards.
It is concerning though that police drivers who will be held to the highest standards, rigourously investigated by the IPCC and expected to adhere to the code of ethics are having potential distractions put in their way by the organisations that employ them.