Study Examines Distracted Driving Enforcement in Washington State
In 2014, nearly half a million people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. While 46 states and most countries have distracted driving laws on the books, a new study from the University of Washington’s Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center found that law enforcement officers find these laws have not kept pace with technology and can difficult to enforce.
The researchers conducted focus groups with active duty law enforcement officers from Spokane, King and Whatcom counties in Washington State. A key finding was that officers said that laws against drunk driving are now strictly enforced; a similar change is needed limit distracted driving.
“These results underscore the importance of cultural norms on the way our laws are perceived and enforced,” said senior author Dr. Beth Ebel, a trauma pediatrician at the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Washington and faculty member at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Most young drivers today wouldn’t dream of driving intoxicated. That’s a change from even five or ten years ago. We need to see that same change around distracted driving.”
Officers uniformly felt that distracted driving laws needed updating to keep pace with technology. They provided three suggestions for crafting more enforceable and effective laws. First, they felt that laws should prohibit all forms of electronic distraction while driving; including checking email, scrolling through Instagram or posting to Facebook. Second, distracted driving laws should apply to all drivers in all driving environments. Third, drivers pay attention once distracted driving violations become reportable offenses on one’s driving record.
“Officers told us they don’t want to know what someone typing on their phone – just that they shouldn’t be doing it. The distinction between checking sports scores or sending a text shouldn’t need to be deciphered on the side of the road by law enforcement,” said Dr. Ebel.
The study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that some officers were themselves distracted drivers. They reported preventable distractions such as typing on the patrol car computer or sending text messages while driving. Chiefs of police and state patrol leaders have responded by establishing and enforcing policies banning distracted driving for officers. Dr. Ebel and her team also worked with local law enforcement to create a video which answered questions about how to best enforce the current laws.
Finally, the researchers found that distracted driving enforcement remains largely dependent on an officer’s personal views. “The key for enforcement, I think, is that officers will enforce a law if it touches their core value,” reported one officer.