Keys to safe driving: "The eyes have it!"

It’s no coincidence that Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams was not only the last player to bat .406 (in 1941) but was also a decorated Navy pilot. Those two feats required more than just hard work and determination — they required excellent vision and attention. So does driving a police vehicle.

Hitting a baseball is widely considered to be one of the hardest things to do in all of sports (Williams famously said it is). Stand 60 feet, six inches away from a man who throws a ball in excess of 95 mph and hit that round ball with the round barrel of a bat. You only get 0.35 seconds for reaction time, and if you miss, the next pitch you see will likely be at a different speed, rotation, and location. Thus is the life of a Major League Baseball Hitter.

Now think about the split-second decisions you need to make when you’re behind the wheel of your squad car. A vehicle covering the same 60 feet, six inches in 0.35 seconds can do a whole lot more damage than a baseball.

Most of us have relied on optometrists to tell us our eyes are fine or correct our vision but that is not going to give you the complete picture. We don’t have to be satisfied with just that. Just as athletes and others are using techniques to improve their visual acuity, we law enforcement professionals should consider incorporating exercises for our eyes in an effort to be as safe as possible behind the wheel.

Most trainers would agree that we can be proactive in improving vision. Indeed, evidence suggests that as we improve our visual attention skills the likelihood of collisions will be reduced. This involves training and with regard to law enforcement driver training, this should always involve attention and visual skill training.

As a student you are probably familiar with some of this. If you hit a cone on a training course, your instructor likely told you to stop “looking” at the cone or they may have told you to “look” down the roadway instead of just over your car hood. At 90-degree turns your instructor may have discussed the importance of “looking” from chin to shoulder each way before proceeding and when approaching intersections you were very likely taught how to visually clear each lane of traffic while taking a last “look” in the first lane you are entering. Whether you know it or not, vision is the key to successful driving on the training course or the actual road.

Airline pilots have one of the lowest vehicle collision rates. Why is that? To remain a commercial pilot, they train multiple times a year. Much of that training focuses on the visual attention required to overcome the multitude of emergencies they are required to handle in the training environment. The unfortunate lack of emergency vehicle driver training — combined with the complacency that can occur with driving a car every day — has many in law enforcement facing great danger behind the wheel of a car. While I applaud the agencies that have been proactive in this area, I am ashamed of the others that are willfully ignoring the largest risk to law enforcement today, driving.

Whether you are receiving training or not, you can use the below exercises to help you improve your visual acuity behind the wheel of a car.

The Snap Shot
NFL Quarterbacks are trained to take a visual snapshot of a defense before snapping the ball. A successful quarterback is one that can identify the various defensive schemes and adjust accordingly. As a driver, these snapshots at the roadway ahead can be very valuable.

Concentrating on a scene or intersection for a few brief seconds can enable you to see something that you would not have normally seen. As a passenger, look down the road for two seconds then close your eyes. Wait several seconds and then tell the driver everything that you observed. Do this again down the roadway and you will likely be able to report even more information. Practice enough as a passenger that you can report the same amount of information in a second or less.

I am not advocating closing your eyes as a driver. But this is simple technique that can be practiced as a passenger that can enable you as a driver to actually take in more information as you look down the road while driving.

Peripheral Vision
Peripheral vision is one of the most important safety aspects in driving, especially in law enforcement. If we can train our eyes to look more to the side and wider than we are now we will pick up new hazards. To develop good peripheral vision we must make a conscious decision to scan our eyes left, right, up, and down.

The only way to make this decision is training. Once again as a passenger, make a conscious decision that whenever you see an intersection or stop sign to completely scan your environment. Scan for a few seconds but then move it up to several seconds. If you will do this a few times each time you are a passenger, you will train your eyes to do this automatically as a driver.

Motion Detection
Safety behind the wheel depends on the driver being able to detect motion. While it is important to scan and observe everything around you, those items that are in motion are the hazards. As a passenger, take ten seconds and scan the entire area including your mirrors. Try to observe what moving objects will influence the actions of drivers. Is it the vehicles approaching the red light or the vehicle coming in from behind you? The more you are able to observe these patterns of movement as a passenger, the more effective you will be as a driver to identify potential hazards much quicker.

Commentary Driving
I have done several commentary drives in training and even more as an instructor but I did not always know why or how to do these. Admittedly, the students feel a little strange talking behind the wheel but nevertheless this exercise has tremendous value. As a driver, tell your passenger everything you see, including the potential hazards and moving objects the vehicle is about to encounter. As a passenger or instructor, your job is to be silent and take pertinent notes about what the driver may have missed and report that back to the driver after a few minutes. The United Parcel Service (UPS) has one of the safest driving records for their industry and the commentary drive has been a mainstay in their training for many years. The United Kingdom leads the world with their advanced police driver training programs which consist of a series of commentary drives.

Distractions while driving are a huge issue for all drivers but for law enforcement in particular there are activities that simply must be done while driving a vehicle. Talking on a radio, looking for suspects, or reading a monitor may all be activities required of an officer sitting behind the wheel of a car.

Distractions not only take our eyes off of the road but our mind as well. The answer to this issue is to implement one- to two-second glances instead of completely taking your eyes off of the road for several seconds. The next time you reach down to change the radio station, consciously make yourself stop and look up after one to two seconds. Once you take that snapshot of the road environment, complete the task in one to two seconds. You can do this with just about any activity that is required.

If you have to read a computer terminal and are unable to stop your vehicle, read just a few words and look back up at your environment and then a few more words and repeat the process. Yes it will take you longer to complete some tasks but your eyes will be on the roadway.

I would like to thank Dr. Kenneth Mills for his book titled: “Disciplined Attention.” His insight on this topic and his book are invaluable for emergency vehicle trainers. The fundamental aim of driving safely is to utilize observations, anticipation, and attention to allow a driver to have adequate time to deal with any situation that might arise. Proper vision — and the proper use of that vision — are of the highest importance if we are going to have a safe environment behind the wheel.

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