Stress behind the wheel: A lesson learned young

Part one of a two-part series

Everyone who wears the badge has doubtlessly sat through their share of stress-management or critical-incident training.

I remember the class in my basic academy, and while the instructor was well known in the field, as a 21-year-old coming out of college I had no idea what he was trying to tell me.

“I ‘get it’,” I thought... But I thought wrong.

My First Critical Incident
Don’t let stress get the best of you. It can have negative results on your personal life and family. Do some diaphragm breathing once in a while and it’s all good. “When do we get to go back to the range!”

As a young officer, I didn’t take stress very seriously — in hindsight I had no reference point to actually take it seriously — but in less than a year from that class I would experience what some would deem my first “critical incident.”

It’s no secret that I don’t like working traffic collisions — as a rookie officer I’d do just about anything to avoid them — but in that first year of my career, I found myself being called to go to one I couldn’t avoid.

Then, the dispatcher desperately asked for someone to go to a suicidal subject call.

That was my “out.”

“The wreck can wait” so off I went.

I rounded the corner of the high-rise building and saw what looked to be hundreds of residents standing outside looking up and then I saw what they were looking at — a man hanging from a window at the top of the building.

As I scrambled to come up with a plan and move the onlookers away from the area, things started to go in slow motion. In the excellent book Deadly Force Encounters by Dr. Alexis Artwohl and Loren Christensen, this phenomenon is described as “Slow Motion Time.”

In their research for the book, they discovered that it occurred 63 percent of the time to officers involved in deadly-force encounters.

I’d been a police officer less than a year, and I just discovered that it happens in other law enforcement functions as well.

Taking Training Forward
Thanks to many in our profession, we now enjoy advanced training that incorporates stress inoculation so that we can train just as we play in our profession.

We’ve added stressors into the training environment, which enable us to perform at a high level despite some of the sudden physiological reactions our body has during a stressful event.

We’ve seen a dramatic improvement in our firearms training as we have incorporated scenarios, simulations and simunition into the training environment.

No longer are we shooting at paper targets that don’t shoot back but we utilize crucial decision making skills in that training and we induce stress so that we can still thrive while making those decisions.

That suicidal call almost 20 years ago did not end the way I envisioned. In my mind, I was going to run up 13 flights of stairs, kick the door down, and pull a suicidal man up from the window that he was hanging from.

What did occur bothered me. He let go and it happened just a few feet from me. The sound of a man landing from that high is not good. The sergeant on the scene knew what the outcome of the physiological effects of stress would do if not addressed correctly. He sent me home a few hours early that night, and made sure in the weeks to come I was doing okay.

There were a few sleepless nights — and some guilt — but ultimately, that first critical incident sent me back to the well of knowledge.

I read what I could on the issue. What didn’t matter to me in the basic academy became important. I ‘got it.’ 

Today’s crime fighters have a wealth of knowledge that didn’t even exist a decade ago. We can thank the efforts of Artwohl, Christensen, Lewinski, Grossman, and a host of others that have brought stress and its effects into mainstream law enforcement.

Much of that focus has been on deadly-force incidents but the same issues can — and do — apply behind the wheel of the car.

Just as that suicidal subject call many years ago triggered something inside my body that changed my perceptions, so can a high speed pursuit or an emergency vehicle run.

Statistics tell us that most officers will never be involved in a shooting but all of them will be asked to drive with emergency lights and siren. With this in mind, we must ask ourselves if we are treating vehicle issues the same as we do deadly force encounters.

Looking Ahead
In part two of this article, I’ll discuss how the effects of stress can impact you behind the wheel — as well as how it’s already had an effect without you even noticing.

We can learn much from our firearm instructor colleagues and we will discuss how we can incorporate what they currently do on in our driving classes and ultimately it will make us better prepared behind the wheel.

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