Keep your eyes off the road

Harming innocent bystanders when racing to answer an emergency call is every police driver’s worst nightmare. Sadly such incidents, though rare, are on the increase. David Crundall and colleagues at the University of Nottingham investigated the suggestion that when they’re driving at speed, police drivers focus too much on the road ahead, neglecting to look out adequately for hazards all around them.

A group of trained police drivers and civilian drivers watched a series of 60-second video clips showing a normal drive, a police chase, and a police emergency call, all from the driver’s perspective. They had to continuously rate the level of hazard, as they judged it, using a sliding scale. Meanwhile the researchers monitored their eye movements to see where they were looking.

During the emergency call clips, the police and civilian drivers focused far more on the road directly ahead (at the ‘point of expansion’) than they did during the normal drive clips. “This is understandable in terms of the driver trying to obtain as much preview of their current course as possible, though the inevitable reduced attention to peripheral sources of hazards may be a cause for concern”, the researchers said.

During the chase clips, the civilian drivers who were more experienced tended to overly focus on the fleeing car, rather than all around. In contrast, and probably a sign of their training, this was far less the case for the police drivers who continued to look out for other potential hazards, like pedestrians. However, they did neglect to look at side roads as much as they did during the normal drive. The less experienced civilian drivers also focused less on the target car, but they spent the rest of the time looking at things like road markings rather than potential hazards.

“…it is hoped these data will help to form a foundation from which we can begin to understand the visual skills that are required for safe police driving”, the researchers concluded.

Crundall, D., Chapman, P., France, E., Underwood, G. & Phelps, N. (2005). What attracts attention during police pursuit driving? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19, 409-420.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.