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Research: Would cops notice a gun on the dashboard during a traffic stop?

Police recruits and veteran cops failed to notice a gun on a vehicle’s dashboard during a simulated traffic stop. Could inattentional blindness be to blame?


View through the driver-side window, with a gun visible on the passenger dash (indicated by the yellow arrow).

Photo/Michael Schlosser, Daniel Simons

By Michael Schlosser, Ph.D., & Daniel Simons, Ph.D.

Most police officers take pride in their ability to spot threats. They might even take this ability for granted, assuming that by following what they learned during academy and in-service training, they will detect risks almost automatically.

Almost all police officers likely would predict they would immediately observe a handgun if it were set on the dashboard during a traffic stop. However, a study we conducted at the University of Illinois Police Training Institute involving 100 recruits (during the first four weeks of training) and 75 veteran officers, found that many officers in both groups failed to notice a gun at any point during a simulated stop.

What the study involved

The study involved a vehicle-stop scenario in which officers approached a vehicle for the minor traffic violation of disobeying a stop sign.

A role player with many years of experience acted as the driver in the simulated study and, for each officer who approached the vehicle, he acted either cooperative or agitated/hostile (in a predetermined, random order; he complied with the officer in both conditions).

The question was whether the police officer would notice the semi-automatic handgun (realistic training gun) resting on the passenger-side dashboard in full view through the driver’s side window.

We had predicted that the driver’s demeanor (cooperative or agitated) might affect how often people would notice the gun. They might notice the gun more often with a hostile driver due to perceived higher risk, or they might notice less often with a hostile driver because they would be more narrowly focused on the driver himself.

Surprisingly, the driver’s behavior had little effect. Across those conditions, 58% of recruit officers and 33% of the veteran officers failed to notice the weapon at any point during the simulated vehicle stop.

Implications of the study

Most police officers would expect that veteran officers would be much more likely to notice a dangerous weapon compared to recruit officers in their first four weeks of training. Although they were more likely, one-third still missed it.

Both the recruit and veteran officers who failed to notice the handgun were disappointed in themselves and thought they should have noticed it. They know that a gun is a potentially dangerous threat, and they expected that such threats would automatically capture their attention.

Instead, they experienced “inattentional blindness” – when people focus on a task that demands their attention, they often fail to notice unexpected objects or events that occur in plain view. In other words, officers who do not “expect” to see a weapon on the dashboard will often fail to notice it, especially if they are focusing attention on something else, such as the driver.

Study limitations

Although the study provided clear evidence that both experienced officers and recruits can fail to notice an obvious threat, it is unclear whether this study would generalize to other situations. For example, this was a simulated exercise, not a real-life vehicle stop, and officers might be more (or less) likely to notice a gun in a real-life stop. Also, the study used only one role player (a white, male driver) in a training setting, and the results might differ (with more or less noticing) with female drivers, drivers of other races, or vehicle stops in higher-risk settings.

Despite these limitations, the results dispel the misconception that police officers will automatically notice unexpected threats, such as handguns, while performing typical tasks. If the results do generalize to real-life vehicle stops, they could lead to better police officer training.

Assumptions and possible solutions

Officers know that any vehicle they approach might have weapons inside. And, they typically believe that they should and would notice a gun in plain sight on the dashboard. This study suggests that officers may focus closely on the driver and the driver’s movements, leading them to miss the obvious presence of a gun.

Knowing that it is possible and perhaps normal that officers will not detect a dangerous weapon in many instances, a possible recommendation could be for a backup officer to approach from the opposite side of the vehicle and focus observation primarily on the inside of the vehicle. However, this recommendation is impossible for many, or perhaps most departments, to implement in most vehicle stops. Tactics like this, however, may lead to greater improvements than training.

In any case, continued scenario-based training where dangerous objects are placed in plain view appears to be crucial for police officers if for no other reason than to dispel the mistaken belief that threat detection is automatic.

This study offers no certainty that such training will make a difference, but training in any and every possible scenario can only help improve police officers’ situational awareness and safety.

About the authors

Mike Schlosser, Ph.D., is director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute. He earned his PhD Education from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. He retired as a lieutenant from the Rantoul Police Department in 2004. Dr. Schlosser has conducted and collaborated in numerous research projects at the University of Illinois and is credited for his innovative ideas toward police reform. He has authored dozens of articles, made numerous radio and television appearances, and given over 100 presentations across the country on topics such as police tactics, police training, use of force, de-escalation techniques, control and arrest tactics, the intersection of police and race, diversity, police officer wellness and police family wellness.

Daniel J. Simons, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois where he heads the Visual Cognition Laboratory. He is best known for his research on the limits of visual awareness and for his work on attention and distraction. He teaches courses on visual attention and research methods and is the founding editor of the journal, Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science. Together with Christopher Chabris, he co-authored The New York Times bestseller, “The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.”