Sometimes we get so caught up in the pressures of modern policing--in the battle to reduce liability and to make our bosses happy--that we forget what it takes to get through a patrol shift safely and effectively. That's true for use of force issues and arrest procedures, and it's also true of motor vehicle operations.
Routinely driving your patrol vehicle isn't as exciting (usually) or as life threatening (normally) as locking up a bad guy or driving in a pursuit, but we do it a lot more. And it's during those long night shifts, when nothing's happening, you're bored and just driving around, that many officer-involved accidents occur.
Talk of pursuit management and P.I.T. maneuvers is important, and training with controlled-deflation devices is critical, but on a day-to-day basis, nothing is as important as defensive driving. A quick look at the number of officers killed in motor vehicle related incidents will convince you of that.
The Problem with Defense
So, what do we mean by "defensive driving"? Simply put, defensive driving means to operate your vehicle carefully and thoughtfully, always looking out for what the other guy might do, and taking steps to be ready if he does something unexpected. Defensive driving is safety-oriented driving.
There are two elements to defensive driving: awareness and reaction. Many different systems have been developed over the years to teach drivers how to drive defensively, but most of them come down to just paying attention. That sounds easy to do, and it is--most of the time.
The problem lies in how routine the driving task has become. With automatic transmissions, power steering and brakes, and all of the other power-assisted doo-dads a driver has within reach, operating a vehicle is no longer an engaging activity. There is little interaction between the average driver and his or her vehicle. Once the car is in gear, very little is required to move the vehicle from place to place.
That's great in many ways, but it also presents a trap. The relaxed complacency that sets in during a long drive can be deadly. Additionally, because driving demands so little of us, many drivers undertake various distracting activities while they drive. Eating, drinking, smoking, talking on a cell phone, and even reading a book or a newspaper are just a few of the distractors we use to fill our time behind the wheel.
Most police officers aren't going to fall into that trap, but they have their own set of distractors. Radios, cell phones, clipboards and MDTs all vie for an officer's attention.
So we need some basic skills, and we need to think about them often.
Simple Skills, Big Pay-Off
First and foremost, pay attention to what's happening outside your vehicle. It's easy to have your attention pulled into the vehicle, and that's dangerous. As you move down the road, keep your eyes moving, and guard against fixating on one object, vehicle or person for any period of time. Your inputs should be a series of quick glances, always coming back to the road in front of you.
Glance to the left at a doorway...back to the front. Off to the right front at a pedestrian...back to the front. Check the mirror for what's behind you...back to the front.
Most people do some form of this anyway, but you should actually think about it while doing it. Not all the time, and not for really long stretches of time, but regularly, and purposefully. Train yourself to scan for problems just like you've trained yourself to scan for threats when approaching an enforcement scene.
Your next defensive skill is equally simple--learn to stop. Seriously, many drivers never learn how to stop a vehicle, or even how to slow it safely. In driver training classes we teach two maneuvers: One is a "threshold braking" exercise, where we teach officers to stop their vehicle--from speed--without skidding, or allowing the anti-lock braking system to take over. The second is an "evasive steering" maneuver, where we teach officers to steer around objects, without hitting the brakes. Sometimes you won't have time to brake, or won't want to--like on an icy road. You need to master both of these skills.