They are the most wired vehicles on the road, with dashboard computers, sophisticated radios, navigation systems and cell phones.
While such gadgets are widely seen as distractions to be avoided behind the wheel, there are hundreds of thousands of drivers — police officers and paramedics — who are required to use them, sometimes at high speeds, while weaving through traffic, sirens blaring.
The drivers say the technology is a huge boon for their jobs, saving valuable seconds and providing instant access to essential information. But it also presents a clear risk — even the potential to take a life while they are trying to save one.
Philip Macaluso, a New York paramedic, recalled a moment recently when he was rushing to the hospital while keying information into his dashboard computer. At the last second, he looked up from the control panel and slammed on his brakes to avoid a woman who stepped into the street.
In April 2008, an emergency medical technician in West Nyack, N.Y., looked at his GPS screen, swerved and hit a parked flatbed truck. The crash sheared off the side of the ambulance and left his partner, who was in the passenger seat, paralyzed.
The use of such technology by so-called first responders comes as regulators, legislators and safety advocates seek to limit the use of gadgets by most drivers. Police officers, medics and others who study the field say they are searching to find the right balance.
“We’re dealing with the carnage, which ranges from the trivial to the tragic, of distracted driving,” he said. “We should know better.”
Researchers are working to reduce the risk. At the University of New Hampshire, backed by $34 million in federal financing, they have been developing hands-free technology for police cars.
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Photo courtesy of gwire under the Creative Commons License