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Driver distraction: A growing problem among emergency responders in CA

Data indicates that California emergency responders are causing a growing number of accidents while distracted with work-related technology.

Distracted driving has become a substantial threat to public safety. This behavior contributed to 3,328 deaths and an estimated 421,000 injuries in 2012 alone, according to Many San Francisco residents may think distracted driving is primarily a problem among passenger vehicle drivers. However, according to The Los Angeles Daily News, emergency responders aren’t immune to distraction. In fact, the number of California crashes involving distracted emergency responders has increased 122 percent over the last decade.

A growing threat

Compared to other drivers, emergency responders may be more vulnerable to distraction for a few reasons. These drivers often have access to complex technology, such as in-vehicle police computers. As this technology has grown more sophisticated, the distraction it creates has become worse. Moreover, emergency responders are usually expected to use this technology, even during activities such as driving, to effectively perform their jobs.

Worsening this issue, emergency responders are often exempt from distracted driving laws when they are using technology for work-related purposes. Additionally, departmental guidelines clarifying when technology use is permissible are often vague or absent. Given this limited guidance, some emergency responders may engage in dangerous distractions that are not strictly necessary.

Accident data reveals that this is a growing problem in California. In 2013, 180 traffic collisions involved ambulance, police car or fire truck drivers, compared to 165 in 2012. In 2013, more than 25 percent of these accidents involved electronic equipment use. This represented a significant increase over 2012. Altogether, in 2012 and 2013, distracted emergency responders caused 140 known injuries and three fatalities.

Negligent cases of distraction

Sometimes, these distraction-related accidents may occur when emergency responders are using technology for urgent and necessary purposes. However, in other cases, injuries and deaths may occur because emergency responders are engaging in unnecessary distractions. The following three cases illustrate this risk:

In 2012, a fire unit chief rear-ended another vehicle, fatally injuring one occupant. The chief was making a call on his personal hands-free cell phone at the time.
In 2013, a deputy drifted out of his lane and fatally injured a bicyclist. The deputy, who was returning from a call, was logging information in his in-car computer while driving.
In 2012, a deputy crashed into the back of another vehicle, killing one vehicle occupant and injuring another. Investigators determined that the deputy was choosing music on his phone and in-car computer.
Generally, a distracted driver may be considered liable for injuries or deaths resulting from his or her negligence. In cases such as these three, an emergency responder’s decision to engage in an unnecessary distraction may constitute negligence.

Legal recourse

The victims of these accidents may hesitate to seek recourse from people who risk their lives for the public. Still, emergency responders are held to the same standards as other drivers, including showing due care toward others. When responders fail in that responsibility, they may be considered liable for any resulting accidents.

People who have been hurt in accidents involving driver distraction or other forms of negligence should think about speaking to an attorney. An attorney may be able to explain a person’s rights and legal options given the circumstances of the accident.

Keywords: distracted, driving, accident, injury