Despite state laws and awareness campaigns, distracted driving remains a serious threat to Los Angeles drivers. In a 2013 Office of Traffic Safety report, nearly 70 percent of Californians said they had been hit or almost hit by a driver who was texting or talking on a cellphone. Surprisingly, even emergency responders engage in these habits. Data shows that the drivers of emergency vehicles, such as fire trucks, police cars and ambulances, are responsible for an increasing number of distraction-related car accidents.

Cost of technological advances

The number of collisions that California emergency vehicle drivers cause has risen dramatically over the last decade, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. The 122-percent increase is likely due to the growing use of in-vehicle technology. Devices that are available to the public, such as cellphones, as well as specialized devices, such as in-car computers, can create various opportunities for distraction.

Often, these devices provide information that professionals need to effectively perform their jobs and keep the public safe. Additionally, the equipment is usually designed to be minimally distracting. Still, the effects of cognitive distraction can be significant, and the risk for abuse or bad decisions is always present.

Two egregious fatal accidents that occurred in Southland within the last two years illustrate this potential. One accident involved a police officer who drifted into a bike lane while typing on his in-car computer, fatally injuring a cyclist. The other accident occurred when a police officer rear-ended another vehicle, killing the driver and injuring a passenger, while distracted with his cellphone and in-vehicle computer.

Though such severe accidents are still rare, recent statistics reveal that accidents involving distracted emergency vehicles are occurring fairly regularly:

  • In California, these accidents have claimed 3 lives and injured about 140 people over the last two years.
  • In 2012, the drivers of California emergency vehicles caused 165 traffic collisions; electronic equipment was cited as a known factor in 26 collisions, or just over 15 percent.
  • In 2013, California emergency vehicle drivers caused 180 collisions, and electronic equipment was a factor in 48 collisions, representing more than one-quarter of the collisions.

Many California law enforcement agencies lack explicit policies on the use of cellphones and in-car computers. For instance, the California Highway Patrol allows cellphone use in “exigent circumstances” and in-car computer use at the officer’s discretion. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department offers no guidelines on in-car computer use. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department bans texting, limits cellphone use and requires officers to avoid “excessive” in-car computer use.

Unfortunately, this limited guidance may leave many motorists exposed to careless decisions on the part of emergency vehicle drivers. These accidents may pose a growing threat if the increasing dependence on technology in both personal and professional spheres continues.

Seeking help

Accident victims may be reluctant to pursue compensation from people who serve the public. However, when police officers, fire truck drivers or other emergency responders make reckless decisions that needlessly endanger the lives of others, they can be held accountable for those actions.

Anyone who has been hurt in an accident that an emergency vehicle driver caused should speak with an attorney about the possibility of pursuing compensation.

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