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Should police be exempt from Michigan’s texting and driving ban? Take our survey

September 29, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

Fatal car accident caused by a police officer who was e-mailing on his laptop while driving raises issue on whether law enforcement should follow the same distracted driving law as everyone else


Currently, under Michigan law there’s an exception to the state’s texting-while-driving ban. Under this exception, law enforcement may text while driving so long as it’s being done to:

“Carry out [their] official duties as a police officer … [and/or] … law enforcement official …” (MCL 257.602b(4)(d))

But do you agree that police officers should be exempt from the same anti-texting and distracted driving laws that apply to all other drivers?

The question is not theoretical.  Here’s why I ask:

In California, prosecutors have declined to press criminal charges against a sheriff’s deputy who recently killed a bicyclist in a terrible bike-car accident (the bicyclist also happened to be a lawyer and a former Napster executive). The crash occurred because the officer was e-mailing on his laptop while he was driving. I recently wrote about the case here:  “Deputy who hit, killed former Napster COO while on his laptop will NOT face charges.”

Would the legal outcome be the same if this terrible accident happened here, and if a Michigan police officer caused a similar accident because he was also driving distracted and killed someone?

So what do you think, should police be shielded from criminal prosecution or civil and criminal liability when they choose to drive distracted, and as a result, their distracted driving injures or kills a completely innocent person?

Here’s my own problem with the law enforcement exception under our distracted driving law.

In the landmark 2009 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, it was determined that texting drivers are 23 times more at risk of a crash.

Plus, study after study shows that texting while driving can actually be as dangerous or even more so than drinking and driving. To learn more, take a look at our blog post, “Texting while driving is more dangerous than drinking and driving.”

Why are police officers in Michigan allowed to text and drive?

To try to better understand why police officers have been exempted from Michigan’s ban on texting while driving, I decided to look closer into the legislative history behind the law, MCL 257.602b.

Surprisingly, there is no explanation for why the police exemption even exists. There is nothing in the legislative history that shows the texting exception is necessary or safe. And there’s nothing I found that answers my own question of why a police officer who is e-mailing or texting while driving a car isn’t triggering the same major safety risks for everyone else on the road that texting and distracted driving poses for all other drivers.

After reading through everything, I kept asking this question:

Given the known dangers associated with texting-while-driving, doesn’t the justification for a ban on texting-while-driving apply with equal – if not greater – force to police officers as they hurtle down Michigan roads, speeding to respond to a crime scene, a crash or an emergency call?

And consider the well-documented dangers of texting-while-driving were considered in a 2010 Senate Fiscal Agency analysis and considered by lawmakers when enacting Michigan’s texting ban:

“[S]tudies by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that sending and receiving text messages is by far the riskiest behavior, because it diverts the driver’s attention from the road for extended periods of time. A driver sending a text message may have his or her eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds over a six-second period, and is 23.2 times more likely to be in a crash or near-crash than while not distracted …”

*    *    *

“Text messaging while driving is a major distraction and is responsible for a growing number of automobile accidents.”

*    *    *

“Reading or writing a text message is a complex task that distracts the driver both visually and cognitively.”

*    *    *

“Text messaging is dangerous because it involves both types of distraction, diverting the driver’s cognitive focus while also requiring the driver to look away from the road, sometimes for extended periods of time. This is especially risky at highway speeds: The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that text messaging truck drivers may travel the length of a football field without looking at the road, when driving 55 miles per hour.”

*    *    *

“Texting also poses serious problems in city traffic, where vehicles may stop suddenly or traffic signals can change while the driver is looking away. Distracted drivers also pose a serious hazard for bicyclists and pedestrians who, compared with vehicles and motorists, are not as visible on the roadway and are more likely to be seriously injured or killed in a collision.”

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