2011 in Review: Are cops born to speed?

The Risk Homeostasis Theory can be applied to law enforcement in a variety of ways, including our willingness to ignore proven safety devices and proven safety measures

We’re now just days away from the end of another deadly year for police officers, and it’s been well documented that we are on our way to the 14th consecutive year of roadway incidents being the leading cause of death to law enforcement officers in America. I had been an EVOC Instructor just one year when this trend started and I have seen an increase in awareness and training almost every year since the trend and despite those efforts the trend remains and we have seen NHTSA tell us that since 2000, 42 percent of the officers killed behind the wheel were not wearing seatbelts. Since 1999, we have seen 43 percent of those officers killed in single-vehicle collisions which indicate that many of them may have been related to excessive speed.

We have to ask ourselves, “Why?” Why do our officers ignore proven safety devices and proven safety measures when they know it is killing and injuring those in our profession at alarming rates?

We know that (for the most part) this it is not due to a lack of training. With the focus on EVOC at an all-time high, why do we continue to see these issues? Ask any room of cops why we don’t wear seatbelts or why we speed and the answer you will get is “because we can.” As a law enforcement officer or trainer have you ever thought why this happens in our profession? After all, NHTSA reports a civilian wear rate of close to 90 percent and despite the continued issue of law enforcement fatalities behind the wheel, traffic fatalities to citizens are at their lowest levels since 1949. Why is law enforcement not seeing similar trends? What makes us different?

Risk Homeostasis Theory
Dr. Gerald Wilde, a professor emeritus of psychology at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada developed something called the Risk Homeostasis Theory, and it can be applied to law enforcement in a variety of ways. The theory states that everyone on the planet has their own fixed-level of acceptable risk and they will adjust their life accordingly to maintain the risk they are comfortable with. Could it be that we are seeing some of this reckless behavior by our profession that absolutely knows better because at our core, we actually like the extra risk?

If you do not believe that every human being has a different level of risk then ask a librarian why they aren’t a police officer or listen for the 100th time when your well-meaning relative calls you crazy for doing the job. Oh, or try to not get run over by other police officers when you respond to that “gun” call. Have you ever thought about it? Most people do not think it is normal to run towards the gunfire. Almost everyone runs away but it is the police officer that runs towards it and I have a little secret for you... they love running towards it and to most that is not normal behavior. I love that about our profession and you must know that for most citizens what you do seems a little crazy and it seems crazy because their Risk Homeostasis is much lower.

Those who wear the badge have a higher level of risk tolerance than most others and we must embrace that. There is a reason we don’t recruit librarians: we need men and women willing to run towards danger. But it is that very personality trait that can get us in trouble if we are not careful.

In 2008, more Marines died in the United States on high speed sport motorcycles than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and the ODMP is finding a similar trend in their research of off duty law enforcement deaths so there is no question that we (and Marines) work in a profession among those that take risks and are comfortable with those risks and the question is how do we take those men and women that are risk takers and prevent them from taking unnecessary risks? Risks that are not needed but risks that we get involved in because we have a comfort about it.

How You Train
If you talk to any EVOC Instructor, they will recall a time that a student left class and promptly had a collision. I can remember leaving a week long school that incorporated high speed driving every day and doing some things on the way home that wasn’t exactly smart. There is no doubt that if not done properly, driver training can create overconfidence in one’s ability and that overconfidence can increase risk taking. In fact, numerous studies exist that show training in actual driving compared to a classroom environment actually increases the collision rate.

One study out of the State of Georgia consisted of 5,500 students and the group that obtained 16 hours of training on a driving track had significantly more crashes than a group that did not. Dr. Wilde does not recommend training in vehicle handling skills if the goal is to reduce collisions. “Superior driver training creates superior driving skills but it also increases self confidence.” Wilde goes on to say that this self confidence can lead to over confidence and that creates issues in driving.

While EVOC training on a track has significant value for law enforcement because unlike others we are required to drive in emergency response or in pursuits, we should consider a large portion of that training to be in the area of decision making. There is a place for speed in EVOC but if our programs revolve around that alone or we place too much emphasis on that speed, we are making a serious error and sending our officers to the streets where they are even more confident in that speed and more susceptible to risks they do not have to take.

Dr. Wilde exclaims the difficulty that our profession faces in the area of training. “To promote safety among a group of people who are generally naturally inclined to take risks and that is also why they are in the police force and they are of course recruited for that characteristic, it is extremely difficult to counteract that.”

Company Policy
It is amazing that with all of the issues our profession has seen with roadway deaths that some agencies continue to emphasize response times. I’ll never forget as a young officer, I had a commander who would pull response times and use red ink to point out to the officers who took the longest to go to calls. If you were in the bottom 50 percent on the list you did whatever you could to rise on the list the next month and that meant one thing...drive faster.

We emphasize response times even though the officers cannot control how long a call holds in dispatch or where they are when they receive the call. My favorite time as a new sergeant was when that same commander handed me the red-ink, response-time list and I promptly threw it in the trash when he walked away. It meant nothing then and the only thing it means today is that we are promoting risky behavior behind the wheel.

Risk Is Predictable
One of my favorite sayings is by the famous trainer and retired California Highway Patrol Commander Gordon Graham: “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.”

As a manager, supervisor or fellow officer, you probably know right now who in your agency is at the greatest risk. We know that law enforcement attracts those who have a high risk tolerance but within law enforcement there are different levels of risk takers and you likely know them. If your relatives don’t think you are quite right because of your profession, then you probably think the bomb squad officers are a little off as well. I’ve known a few in our profession that were considered the “tactical gurus” but they seemed to be careless in their safety practices and took their advanced training to overconfidence, which only made their jobs more dangerous.

While nothing is an absolute, we should know that at times, those who are in the riskiest of jobs within our profession may be prone to take more unnecessary risks and that may not be the SWAT members. It may be the officer who everyone knows is aggressive, and most times that aggression is a positive, but other times it is taken to the extreme and we see unsafe practices. There is no absolute answer to knowing who may be susceptible but if we just pay attention, we will likely know who it is and we owe it to them to say something and even do something to prevent tragedy.

I thank God that we have men and women that were made to tolerate more risk than most and they have chosen a profession that places them between good and evil on a nightly basis but it is that same personality trait that can create unnecessary dangers behind the wheel of a police car. The old joke that we drive fast “because we can” is no longer a joke.

As we enter the year 2012 we must all play our part in recognizing when we take risks which do not have to be taken. We must concur that we will not take unnecessary risks “because we can.” Yes, we all accept the risks with the job but we can’t accept unnecessary risks and we are suffering too much tragedy behind the wheel because of it.  

Target Risk 2 by Dr. Gerald Wilde

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