What fighter pilots can teach PDs about safer police pursuits

In the air, if a fighter pilot needs to direct attention to a specific tactical navigation system for four or five seconds, he or she can do so safely — a pursuit driver does not have that same luxury


Imagine you are traveling at 1,200 mph, 30,000 feet above sea level. You are tucked tightly into a cockpit full of dials, toggle switches, and digital navigation maps, a joystick in your hand, wearing a helmet that provides oxygen and radio communication. 

Projected on the acrylic bubble canopy in front of you is valuable information about your location and the location of other aircraft around you — tactical targets on the ground are highlighted as well. You are the pilot of an F-15E Strike Eagle and you have a number of things to keep track of at any given time.

Can you estimate the cognitive load created from piloting such a complex aircraft?

Thinking About Cognitive Load
A colleague of mine is a scientist in the military who measures things like the cognitive load of fighter pilots. Cognitive load is a term that refers to the amount of mental activity and effort needed to complete a task or tasks. Understanding the instrument readings and making split-second decisions at high speed taxes cognitive load. Not surprisingly, adding dials and switches to the cockpit interface or more pilot responsibilities for flying increases cognitive load.

My colleague was invited to ride along with the London Metropolitan Police Service’s pursuit driver training course, which trains pursuit driving on the motorways in and around London, England. Driving at high speed on the same roads as the general public provides real-life situational training. 

After the training concluded, my colleague commented, “The cognitive load put on pursuit drivers is much higher than the cognitive load of the fighter pilots I study.”

Are you surprised by this comment? I was initially, but I shouldn’t have been. Here’s why: It’s true that the cockpit of a fighter jet is overwhelming to someone who doesn’t understand what the instrumentation is used for, but fighter pilots receive a tremendous amount of training. Their training program gives them time to learn what all of the dials and switches mean and how to use them. In fact, some of the more routine tasks for flying are automated so that the pilot doesn’t have to worry about them (thus, the term “auto-pilot”).

Scientists in the military spend a great deal of time running experiments to see how much information should be automated and how much should remain the responsibility of the pilot. They have even installed onboard computer programs that change this ratio based on the cognitive load of the pilot at any given time. Once the pilot understands these parameters, and has been trained to fly the machine, most of the mental processing needed to operate the jet can be managed without much thought. 

The result is that the pilot now has the mental resources needed to consider other things from the environment, like where other aircraft are located in relation to the pilot and where ground fire is coming from. Science has found ways to keep a pilot’s cognitive load manageable, which makes the pilot more effective and increases safety.

Cognitive Load During Pursuit
How many police pursuit accidents could be avoided if cognitive load was reduced? The amount of environmental information to which a pursuit driver must attend is more demanding and mentally taxing than that of a fighter pilot. In the air, if a fighter pilot needs to direct attention to a specific tactical navigation system for four or five seconds, he or she can do so safely — a pursuit driver does not have that same luxury. There are too many threats in the streets and highways during a pursuit — attention must be directed and focused on the things happening in the environment. 

There are trees, cars, people, and there are curbs, street signs, and fire hydrants. Even dropping two wheels onto the shoulder can cause the car to lose traction. And the pursuit driver must maintain control of the police car while making tactical decisions that keep others in the immediate surroundings safe as well. Shifting attention away from the drive, even for a brief moment, can have fatal consequences.

The demand on a pursuit driver’s attention is the main source of cognitive load — being occupied with instruments and electronics in the cockpit and engaging in radio communication at the same time only increases the mental load that is already near max.

More and more electronics are being added to the cockpits of police cars: Is this a good thing? Granted, there are legitimate reasons for most of the new tools being added, but has anyone considered the effect of these additional electronics on a police officer’s cognitive load? Is having a few extra pieces of information worth the added risk to safety they bring? Shouldn’t science be used to determine how much information overloads the cognitive system, and then determine which electronic tools are absolutely necessary?

There are at least three ways to reduce the cognitive load of pursuit drivers: 

1. Increase training to automatize tactical driving behaviors.
A greater emphasis should be placed on EVOC training. The Below 100 program points out that officer deaths each year are disproportionately represented in traffic accidents. With budget shortages and time constraints, finding ways to increase driver training can be challenging. It takes creative thinking and a real commitment to driver training to make it happen. Chief Duane Hampton and Town Manager Eric Peterson of Hillsborough, North Carolina model this. They have created a professional development driving course they call “Slower is Faster” and have partnered with the state’s largest public safety insurer to offer a two-day driving course each year to municipal police officers in their state.

2. Reduce the number of distractors in the cockpit.
Distracted driving is the number one cause of vehicle accidents, especially during non-emergency driving. How many officers in your department have had low speed bump-ups while engaged with their computer? And if you have pursued a vehicle, you understand how much more difficult this is at high speeds. More research needs to be conducted to determine how to reduce distractors in the cockpit, but in the meantime, there are steps that can be taken to reduce cognitive load. For example, many agencies have installed software on the onboard computer system that limits information coming in and prohibits input from the officer while the vehicle is moving. Limiting electronic interfaces while moving is a step in the right direction.

3. Develop and enforce organizational pursuit policies that recognize the effects of cognitive load and place realistic expectations on officers during pursuits.
The trend over the last several years has been moving in the right direction. Large police agencies have pursuit policies in place that emphasize safety. These need to be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. But just as critical as the pursuit policy is the enforcement of the policy. Creating a climate and culture of safety and responsibility guides officer behavior in the early stages of a pursuit and sets the officer up for success. Policy and decision-makers need to have a good understanding of how stress and cognitive load affect safe driving so that meaningful policies are in place to protect officers.

Having a scientist who spends his career studying the mental processes of fighter pilots say that the cognitive load is greater for pursuit drivers should make us pause to consider the situation. Too many police officers and innocent members of our communities are injured and lose their lives in pursuits for this topic to be ignored. We have the science and the knowledge. It’s time the leaders in law enforcement address the hard issues of training and policy and make the tough choices necessary to address this issue.

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