Emergency calls questioned 

The ongoing discussion of Missoula’s potential cell phone ban for drivers took a left turn last week when Ward 6 Councilmember Ed Childers raised a question with no clear answer: Are police officers able to drive more safely than the rest of us while talking on their cell phones?

He asked because the potential ban being batted around by the city’s Public Safety and Health Committee includes an exemption for emergency personnel. And while their job would seem to require the need to talk and drive at the same time, Childers wondered if there was an evidence to suggest they wouldn’t cause a similar danger.

Turns out, mountains of studies exist underscoring the correlation between unsafe driving and cell phone use—the National Safety Council cites 50 such studies—but officials from two traffic safety organizations say nobody has studied whether police officers are better able to talk and drive than the rest of us.

“[Cell phone use by emergency personnel] is not something we have research on,” says Karen Aldana, spokesperson for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “I wouldn’t be able to speak anecdotally at all.”

Meredith Morris of the National Safety Council agreed, but added, “What concerns us for any driver is the level of cognitive distraction caused by cell phone use while driving.”

Childers posed the question to Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir during the May 11 meeting, but didn’t press the issue. Muir didn’t know of any studies, but did point out that officers receive many hours of defensive driving training, a benefit the majority of drivers don’t experience.

“They say they need to use a cell phone as part of their regular driving duties,” Childers says. “And I can’t assume they don’t need it. I have to assume that these guys are hired to do a job and they get a whole lot of training on a whole lot of different levels.”

Ward 1 Councilmember Dave Strohmaier, who drafted the cell phone ban, says regardless of the research, an emergency worker’s need to perform his or her job outweighs any safety issue.

“Some situations—regardless of the increased risk—warrant use of electronic communication devices,” wrote Strohmaier in an e-mail. “The same logic applies to any private citizen dialing 911 to report an emergency (something that is also exempted from the ordinance).”

The committee will continue to discuss the ordinance before referring it to the full council.
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