The Best Defense is a Good Defense

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.

Next comes skid management. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you start to slide. When that happens, we have all learned to "turn in the direction of the skid", and to stay "off the brake". Skid management is a whole article by itself, but here are a couple of tips for you.

First, skid management is all about being gentle with your vehicle. Something has happened to disturb the equilibrium between your vehicle and the roadway, and your tires have lost adhesion. In order to get that back, you have three basic inputs at your disposal: acceleration, braking and cornering force, and you have to use them carefully.

If your front wheels are sliding, it may help to transfer weight to the front of your vehicle. You can do this by very gently applying light braking, or--if you are accelerating--easing off the gas.

The reverse is true if your rear wheels are sliding. Transfer weight to the rear by easing off the brake. You could also transfer weight by applying acceleration, but if you're already in a skid, and driving a rear wheel drive vehicle, that's not usually a good idea.

One more way you can gain some control is to momentarily straighten your wheels. A tire rolling straight ahead has more "grip" on the pavement than one that is turned, even slightly.

So, let's say you're going into a turn, and as you turn the corner, your front end starts to "plow," or to slide in the direction of momentum, instead of taking the curved path you want it to. You're probably going too fast for the corner. Apply some light brake while straightening out the wheels for a millisecond, then off the brake and try turning again. Depending on your speed, and how much room you have, you might have time to repeat this sequence one more time. That could be enough to help you out of the skid and around the corner.

If All Else Fails

If you're still not going to make it, straighten out your wheels and drive straight off the road. Always try to leave the road at a straight ahead (perpendicular) angle. It's almost never a good idea to let your vehicle leave the roadways in a sideways attitude. That frequently leads to a roll-over, or at the least, severe undercarriage damage. If you're moving straight ahead, you may still be able to steer. If that's the case, aim for something soft!

Rule Number One

The most important defensive driving rule is to watch out for the other guy! Remember, there are lots of civilians driving around out there, in Condition White: totally unaware of the hazardous nature of their own driving. When they get around a marked unit, they sometimes do wild, unexpected things.

I once pulled up to a red traffic light behind another vehicle. I watched the driver as she looked at me and my marked unit in her mirror, and then promptly drove through the red light. Luckily, there was no cross traffic at that moment.

Another time my partner and I were headed to an injury accident, running with full emergency equipment, when we approached a multi-lane intersection. We had the green light, but something made me slow way down anyway. Just as we were about to go through, a vehicle that had been stopped at the red light on the cross street drove straight through the intersection, right in front of us.

With apologies to that famous philosopher, "Driving a police car is like a box of never know what you're going to get."

Stay safe, and wear your vest (and Buckle Up!)