Pilots, truckers, and...cops? Why fatigue may be killing our decision-making

Human performance factors such as reaction time and decision-making — areas of mutual concern for pilots, truckers, and cops — can potentially lead to errors with deadly consequences

Six years ago this month, a sheriff's deputy in California struck and killed two bicyclists. It was widely reported that fatigue may have been a factor in the incident — that he had fallen asleep at the wheel after working a long shift the day before the incident. 

The deputy pleaded guilty two misdemeanor counts of vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to four months under house arrest and 20 weeks of community service. Last I heard, he was demoted to a civilian position with his agency. Although I’ve been unable to discover whether or not he stuck with that new role or moved on, it’s safe to say that no matter what came next for that young LEO, moving on from the memory of that type of tragic accident is something we’d all like to avoid. 

A new study being conducted by Police1 Contributor David Blake is aimed at precisely that objective — helping police agencies and individual officers find ways to avoid fatal fatigue. 

Pilots and Truckers... and Cops?
“Airline pilots and long haul truck drivers can have a direct influence on the safety and wellbeing of the general public,” Blake told me recently. “As a result, each has rules and regulations regarding the amount of rest (non-work hours) that exist between work hours or shifts.”

These hours of rest are due to “a mountain of empirical evidence showing that fatigue impairs cognitive performance,” Blake said. 

Blake specifically cited performance factors such as reaction time and decision-making — areas of mutual concern for pilots, truckers, and cops — which can potentially lead to errors with deadly consequences.

“The law enforcement community is no stranger to long arduous hours, shift work, court appearances, and a general lack of uninterrupted sleep. Like the transportation industry, law enforcement is required to make critical decisions in short time periods which require a clear, well-rested, and optimally performing human being. Yet, significant research exists showing many officers are not rested, with some reporting they have made errors because they are tired. 

Indeed, significant and serious research has been conducted in this area. 

As was noted by Force Science Institute — and subsequently reported here on Police1 — a survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that among officers in the United States and Canada:

•    53 percent get less than 6.5 hours of sleep daily (compared to 30 percent of the general population) 
•    91 percent report feeling fatigued “routinely” 
•    14 percent are tired when they start their work shift 
•    85 percent drive while “drowsy” 
•    39 percent have fallen asleep at the wheel 

“Even with this mountain of evidence on the effects of fatigue, there seems to be little movement — or even significant concern — within some departments or overseeing organizations in regards to whether officers are well rested before performing their duties,” Blake lamented. 

“One important area of fatigue and police performance not widely addressed involves the use of deadly force,” Blake said. “General research has shown that fatigue impairs attention, decision making, and reaction times.  Do these negative effects translate to an officer in a shoot / don’t shoot situation?”

Participant Requirements and Instructions
Blake hopes that this study might determine whether sleep habits affect the use of deadly force decision-making and reaction times. Blake and his researchers are looking for shift-working police officers who are willing to participate in this study. 

“As a veteran police officer I am well aware of the long list of demands placed upon shift-working police officers and I have always been concerned about the lack of sleep some of my partners received before working a 12 hour — or longer — shift. My passion lies with officer safety and performance issues and I want to make a difference within the law enforcement community by ensuring officers are performing at their best,” Blake said.

The study asks that participants complete a simple four-day sleep diary before signing in the first time (time awake, total hours slept, quality of sleep). 

Participants will then log in twice daily during a regularly scheduled work week — within an hour before and after shift — and complete a series of science based tasks. 

Each sign-in will include answering questions about subjective levels of fatigue, completing reaction time tasks, answering short surveys, and completing a shoot / don’t shoot task. 

The program allows only four days’ of data — a total of eight sign-ins — and the total time to complete one session is approximately eight minutes. 

The study is completely voluntary and confidential for departments and individual participants. Potential participants are asked to contact the researchers at policeuofstudy@gmail.com with any questions of concerns. 

To access the study entitled, “Factoring Fatigue into Police Deadly Force Encounters” just go to www.policeuofstudy.com. The homepage includes a literature review and instructions. The study will be active through mid-May, but Blake asks that individuals only register once.

Studies like the one being conducted by Police1 Contributor David Blake may provide a background for police managers, unions, and government risk managers to ensure their officers are well rested and able to perform at optimal levels. 

“Simple adjustments in scheduling court, providing short nap periods, or limiting overtime can potentially make a very large difference in overall officer safety,” Blake said. “These are minor adjustments that aren’t widely accepted even with the current amount of fatigue evidence supporting change.”

Blake pointed out that this study is more than a simple survey. Strict adherence to the instructions is required, so only serious participants should involve themselves in this enterprise.

“Lastly,” Blake cautioned, “please do not attempt to perform the study on a work computer as the high security settings have shown to cause unrecoverable failures within the program.

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