SUBSCRIBE
CONTACT
ABOUT DRIVING IN THE REAL WORLD

Driving in the Real WorldTM is a change agent for driving safely and efficiently in the real world. Many driver's education programs, especially in the United States, do not adequately train people in hazard perception, risk management, and proper handling of the complex challenges of everyday driving. Through its blog, social media, and upcoming subscription newsletter, DITRWTM offers tips, techniques, and reflections on driving that will improve your situational awareness and may even save your life and that of others.

There is an enormous need to make our roads safer by making it socially unacceptable to be a bad driver in America, regardless of the cause. We must completely rethink how we drive and how we teach it, and then make the driving test something to actually be respected. Driver's ed should also be a lifelong learning process. And I believe that this can be achieved in much more fun, enjoyable, and experiential ways than it is often presented now.

Many people don't realize this, but what makes you a better driver also improves you in many other areas of life. This involves honest self-examination of our core values as both a society and the individuals that constitute it, and truly making the necessary changes to improve our attitudes on the road.

Thank you so much for visiting. I invite readers to share their own experiences and reflections on driving, to suggest ideas on the subject, and to follow me on Twitter (@DrivingReal).

—Mi Ae

 

ARCHIVED
Saturday
Apr012017

Distracted Driving & Technology: It’s Not What You Think It Is—It’s Much Worse

 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard that distracted driving is dangerous. Perhaps you’ve seen electronic signboard messages warning against it on our highways or heard it covered in the media. 

Perhaps you even do it yourself behind the wheel—talk on the phone, text, play Pokémon Go, use Snapchat, check Facebook or email on your smartwatch, or fiddle with the GPS and infotainment systems in your car.

You might think nothing of it: I’m a good driver. I’ve done it many times and nothing bad has ever happened. I only do it when I’m at a stoplight, anyway. It’s the other idiot whom I have to watch out for.

Well, it’s time to stop, because the problem is far more serious than you think. And you’re already paying for the actions of distraction drivers in ways you never imagined.

Why Is Technology So Unsafe?

Often-cited driver distractions include eating, grooming, wrangling children, talking to passengers, fussing with pets, and falling asleep. But the biggest elephant sitting in the driver’s seat is electronic technology—specifically smartphones, wearable devices, and in-car systems that allow us to access email, apps, games, social media, texting, cameras, and Internet.

You might be asking: What’s the big deal? Why not also ban reaching for a water bottle or fiddling with a radio? Or listening to music?

The key difference with electronic technology lies in the cognitive load. We think we can multitask but we can’t—our brains simply switch back and forth very quickly. Ever notice how people walking while talking on cell phones suddenly stop moving when they’re in deep conversation? Their vision literally deadens in a phenomenon called inattention blindness, because their brains can’t handle the two tasks at once. The same thing holds true behind the wheel: Our minds cannot be fully focused on the task of driving a two-ton vehicle while we’re doing something else.

Besides the cognitive load, electronic tech demands our visual attention (our eyes are on the screen and not on the road) as well as manual attention (at least one of our hands is not on the steering wheel).

What makes tech especially dangerous is our desire to engage with it so compulsively. Biologically, we’re wired to crave social connection and information. An incoming call or message is the proverbial tap on our shoulder, as Matt Richtel writes of the neurocognitive science in his 2014 book A Deadly Wandering. Ours is a perpetual reward system—answer that siren call, and our brains release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates our pleasure centers. Respond again, and we get another little dopamine squirt. Once habituated, our brains crave more, getting restless when deprived of stimulation for too long before its next fix.

Based on this neuroscience, this is why so many entreaties to not use our cell phones when driving simply don’t work. It’s not simply behavioral—it’s about overcoming a chemical addiction of sorts (or at least a very strong biological compulsion).

Consider these facts:

  • It’s not safe to use a device even when stopped at a traffic light; University of Utah researchers have found that drivers can take up to 27 seconds to regain full attention after sending a text.

The True Cost of Distracted Driving

In just the past two years, the number of people seriously injured or killed distracted by technology has skyrocketed. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatal crashes suddenly jumped nationwide by 7.2 percent in 2015, and 2016 preliminary statistics are not looking much better. The National Safety Council estimates that cell phone use is a factor in 1 out of every 4 collisions in the United States.

Every day in the United States, at least 8 people die in crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s 2,920 people, or 7 jumbo jetloads of dead passengers every year—and that’s not including nearly 424,000 more injured.

And the carnage is not just confined to drivers and passengers—it’s also pedestrians, cyclists, and other road users. In 2015 alone, pedestrian fatalities jumped nearly 10 percent to 5,376, and injuries increased nearly 8 percent to 70,000, according to NHTSA. That amounts to a person dying nearly every 2 hours. For our roads to be safe, all its users need to be distraction-free.

Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable because they often think it’s okay to wear headphones and use electronic devices when crossing the street, and drivers think it’s fine to use their smartphones in school zones and other places. In a 2014 study, nearly 40 percent of the 1,040 American teens participating reported having been hit or nearly hit by a passing car, motorcycle, or bike.

Aside from the obvious tragedy, the financial impact on the American economy is profound. In a 2015 report, NHTSA calculated the average lifetime economic cost for each fatality as $1.4 million, with over 90 percent attributable to lost workplace and household productivity and legal costs. Crashes in which at least one driver was identified as being distracted cost a staggering $40 billion in 2010—all of it preventable.

Not surprisingly, insurance companies are also feeling the effects of distracted driving and passing it along to all their customers. Their loss costs—payments to treat injuries, repair damaged vehicles and property, and defend insured drivers in legal actions—have soared since 2011, resulting in the average annual auto premium jumping 16 percent to $925. Much of that increase is directly related to texting and driving. Distracted drivers often don’t admit to using their tech; thus, no fault can be attributed in many collisions.

So you and I end up paying these costs, even if we’re responsible drivers ourselves. How fair is that? 

But What If? And What About My Rights?

You might be thinking: But what if I have an emergency and need to call or message back while driving? The neurocognitive research shows that our biology has superbly trained us to be slaves to our technology by creating a false sense of urgency, desire, and reward.

It’s time to think of electronic distraction as the new drunk driving, because our smartphones are the ultimate open container.

As a species, we’re really good at being overconfident and incredibly poor at gauging risk. Danger is abstract because most days nothing happens. We’re not good at grasping consequence until we’re staring at its aftermath. And that aftermath can be incomprehensible. Deaths and injuries from distracted driving are always preventable. No call or text or game or selfie is ever worth the untold anguish. Period.

As a society, we’re often very resistant to legislation and enforcement efforts against smartphone and electronic tech use behind the wheel. But at stake are lives, well-being, property, and the economy. Personally I’d love the right to drive without fear of someone on their phone crashing into me, or my children to walk across the street without threat of being killed or injured by an oblivious red light runner, or to not have to literally pay for the follies of others. Who knows, you just might too.

What You Can Do

Contact your legislators. Advocate for consistent laws, education, enforcement, cultural stigma, and swift, heavy penalties. Pledge to make cell phone use while driving as socially inacceptable as drunk driving. Make it a priority that you won’t enable yourself or others to perpetuate this dangerous activity. Don’t talk to someone on the phone if you know they’re driving.

The single best way to overcome temptation? Shut off your phone completely and put it where you can’t reach or hear it, like in the trunk. If you must use GPS, input addresses before you start moving. If you need to adjust it, wait until you’re safely stopped.

And remember, you’re always modeling behavior for your children as well. By the time they’re driving age, they’ve had at least 15 years of seeing what you do behind the wheel—a little late to tell them “do as I say, not as I do.”

_______________

In my quest to help consumers become safer on the roads, I have befriended many lawyers. If you're in California and have been injured in a distracted driving crash, Michael Ehline of Ehline Law Firm Personal Injury Attorneys, APLC can help today.

Seen on the left at the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, Ehline lobbies Congress on behalf of safer transportation. 

His team is ready to help in any way they can. Michael has won millions of dollars for accident victims nationwide.

I am impressed with his expertise and believe he can help. The law firm's number is (213) 596-9642. Check them out. He also offers a free initial legal consultation to discuss your case.

Ehline Law Firm Personal Injury Attorneys APLC
201 Wilshire Blvd. FL 2
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Website: www.ehlinelaw.com
Wednesday
Mar292017

What’s the Big Deal with Self-Driving Cars, Anyway?

These days, you can’t go a week without hearing something in the news media about self-driving cars and autonomous driving. So what is it all about, and what could it mean for you?

You might be surprised to hear that this has been around longer than you might suspect. As far back as 1939, futuristic projections were being touted by General Motors (GM) in their Futurama automated highway, complete with no-hands-needed cars. In the 1950s, GM and RCA demonstrated an automated highway system using radio control for speed and steering, but getting consensus for technology and infrastructure standards were as challenging then as now, and their grand plans never bore fruit.

Significant advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) in the 1960s made the possibility of self-driving vehicles ever more real, and in the 1980s and 1990s, sample stretches of road in San Francisco and Europe were tested with technology that communicated directly with vehicles. But it hasn’t been until the past decade that advancements in computer processors, software, and radar and laser sensors have enabled quantum leaps in self-driving technology.

At this point, nearly every major automotive manufacturer is working on autonomous technology, and the race is on to create the world’s first fully self-driving car, with Google and Tesla the most high-profile players. Already we’re seeing semi-autonomous tech in the form of adaptive cruise control, blind-spot assistance, automatic braking systems, and lane-keep steering functions.

So what’s the big fuss about self-driving cars? The biggest is safety. According to the World Health Organization, road collisions caused 1.25 million deaths worldwide in 2013, and a 2011 American Automobile Association study concluded that car crashes cost the United States $300 billion annually. Self-driving technology could bring these numbers down to a mere fraction by propelling vehicles at proper speeds and spacing them effectively, while avoiding the associated injuries, deaths, and vehicle damage.

There are other enormous benefits to self-driving cars. Currently, the typical vehicle represents a lot of waste. We actually drive it only a tiny fraction of the day; it sits in a garage, parking lot, or on the street the rest of the time. But imagine if such a vehicle were self-driving and could be shared between multiple users. It could pull up at your house, take you to work, and then drop you off to pick up an elderly couple to take them grocery shopping. After that it could be summoned by someone else who needs a ride, and so on.

It’s been estimated that on average 30 percent of all vehicles cruising about in a city are looking for parking. If self-driving vehicles were continually serving consumers, there wouldn’t be a need for so much parking space on the street or in garages and lots. This space—always scarce in cities—could be devoted to parks, recreational areas, or even housing.

Congestion would improve as well, since self-driving cars can be programmed to follow one another much more closely in a phenomenon known as platooning. Roadway capacity could be increased as much as 45 percent in some areas, which reduces commute times and fuel consumption. This is a boon not to be ignored in areas with limited public transportation or extreme density.

Self-driving vehicles, if adopted en masse, could profoundly change other business landscapes as well. The need for insurance would be greatly reduced or even eliminated. With fewer vehicles needed to serve multiple people, car sales themselves would drop significantly. And one of the hottest areas for autonomous technology is the commercial trucking industry. These implications are interesting, to say the least, but it is being considered as a possible solution to the current shortage of truck drivers.

Aside from reductions in injuries and fatalities, there are other huge human benefits. Elderly people who can no longer safely drive would now have a way to maintain their independence and dignity without endangering or inconveniencing others. The same holds true for disabled people, children, and other populations who cannot drive themselves.

But of course, many huge issues must be ironed out before truly self-driving cars can be commonplace. Security is one; although hacking a self-driving car is not an easy task, it can be done, as several high-profile incidents have already shown. Another is that current self-driving technology relies in part on clear lane markings and accurate GPS mapping systems to be effective; we all know from experience that our nation’s road infrastructure and GPS at present are simply not up to snuff to ensure the necessary reliability.

Self-driving technology is also only as good as its computer programming and algorithms; if a self-driving vehicle encounters a situation in which it has to hit something, will it sacrifice itself and its driver, or the obstacles (potentially human) that lie in its path? And then who is legally liable for that incident? The automaker, the driver, or even the vehicle’s software creator?

There is the human factor as well. Drivers initially may not trust the technology, but once they do and become reliant on it, they may eventually lose the driving skills necessary to take over the vehicle in an emergency. The most dangerous time may well be right now—the “in-between” period when some vehicle functions are semi-autonomous for limited periods but still require the driver to be alert and skilled enough to take over at any moment.

Still, the potential consequences of self-driving cars are, at the very least, a game-changer for the positive. Of course, many of us can’t imagine—and completely reject—a world in which we can’t pilot our own vehicle. Most days, I count myself as one of those.

But an interesting double standard emerges when it comes to autonomous cars. The infamous May 7, 2016 fatality where a Tesla in Autopilot mode ran into the side of a semi truck in Florida garnered worldwide media attention, fueling the controversies of self-driving car safety. (Contrary to its name, Autopilot is not intended to be used as a substitute for the human driver.) In spite of the millions of miles that have been logged by Google cars and other self-driving vehicles, the media pounces every time a self-driving car has a collision (nearly all of them the fault of the human driver on board).

And yet, over 38,000 Americans alone died in traffic collisions in 2015. That means 73 jumbo jets of passengers dying annually, or 1.4 planeloads’ worth every week. Yet, there is no national outcry over this staggering statistic and hardly any media attention other than a tired end-of-year blip. Somehow we consider this normal—just the cost of driving in America, business as usual. It is just because we perceive ourselves as not being in control in a self-driving car that the possibility of death—even just one—suddenly becomes more egregious.

Personally, I think I’d much rather take my chances any day on roads filled with self-driving cars than be surrounded by inattentive drivers totally distracted by their electronic devices. Just sayin’.

 

Tuesday
Feb282017

Distracted Driving in Washington State in 2017: A Case Study and Why You May Be Already Paying for It

 

It’s the beginning of March, and Washington State’s 2017 legislative session is almost halfway through. In another month or so, the ultimate fate of several proposed distracted driving bills will be known.

We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t drive while using our cell phones. We see countless bad drivers around us paying more attention to their devices than the road. Perhaps you’re one of them. If you are, I ask you to stop. NOW. Not just because it hurts and kills people (shouldn’t that be enough of a reason?), but also because I’m literally paying for it and likely so are you and hundreds of thousands of other Washington State residents. 

Before we go further, let’s define distraction, because accurate definitions matter. The venerable Oxford Dictionary lists “distraction” as “a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else.” Often-cited driver distractions include eating, grooming, wrangling children, talking to passengers, fussing with pets, falling asleep, reading, and operating in-car technology. Of course, the big elephant in the front seat is the cell phone—specifically smartphones that allow us to access email, apps, social media, texting, cameras, and Internet.

Washington was actually the very first state to ban drivers from texting and using handheld devices in 2008, but its laws are now archaic and haven’t kept up with modern smartphone technology. At press time, the current law makes it a primary offense, meaning that a driver can be ticketed for this infraction alone.

Tough To Enforce

So you might wonder: Everywhere I look, drivers are holding their damn phones and talking and texting. Why aren’t the cops out enforcing the law? Well, they are, handing out 2,500 to 3,000 citations monthly in Washington State. But the law is enforceable only if the device is held up to one’s ear or if the driver is texting (or admits to it). If drivers tell police that they were inputting GPS directions or checking sports scores, officers can’t legally write them a ticket, even if they’ve witnessed unsafe driving.

Cell phone records are not typically checked unless devices are suspected as factors in a crash, but even with such records it can be tough to prove in court without a doubt that the driver was inattentive at the exact moment of a crash; phone records also don’t log unfinished or unsent text messages. 

Proposed legislative bills HB 1371 and SB 5289 would eliminate these loopholes by forbidding holding a smartphone, tablet, or other communications device while driving, using dashboard-mounted devices that require more than the tap of a finger (to allow for minimal GPS operation), and watching videos while driving. Fines would remain at $136 for a first offense but jump to $248 for a second offense, and insurers could see cellphone driving violations on driving records.

What’s the Big Deal?

So you might be asking: What’s the big deal? Why not also ban reaching for a water bottle, or fiddling with a radio? Or listening to music?  A third bill, HB 1631, does target activities such as eating, reaching for a dropped item, or tending to pets or backseat passengers that significantly interfere with safe vehicle operation.

The key difference with electronic technology lies in the cognitive load. We think we can multitask but we can’t—our brains simply switch back and forth very quickly. Ever notice how people walking while talking on cell phones suddenly stop moving when they’re in the deepest conversation? Their vision deadens and their brains can’t handle the two tasks at once.

Cell phones also demand our visual and manual attention. Consider these facts:

  • Texting drivers on average take their eyes off the road for up to 5 seconds at a time. At 55 mph, that’s traveling the length of a football field completely blind.
  • Drivers talking on the phone can miss up to 50 percent of what’s in their driving environments.
  • Texting can make drivers 23 times more likely to crash, as profound as drunk driving.
  • It’s not safe to use a device even when stopped at a traffic light; University of Utah researchers have found that drivers can take up to 27 seconds to regain full attention after sending a text.
  • Hands-free and Bluetooth operation aren’t safer—that cognitive load is still present.
  • The National Safety Council estimates that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes annually and is a factor in 1 out of every 4 collisions in the United States.

What makes this technology especially dangerous is our desire to engage with it so compulsively. We’re biologically wired to crave social connection and information. An incoming call or message is the proverbial tap on our shoulder, as Matt Richtel writes of the neurocognitive science in his 2014 book A Deadly Wandering. Ours is a perpetual reward system—answer that siren call, and our brains release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates our pleasure centers. Respond again, and we get another little dopamine squirt. Once habituated, our brains crave more, getting restless when deprived of stimulation for too long before its next fix.

Based on this neuroscience, I strongly believe this is why so many entreaties to not use our cell phones when driving simply don’t work. It’s not simply behavioral—it’s about overcoming a chemical addiction of sorts (or at least a very strong biological compulsion). It’s not recognizing and addressing the problem for what it is.

Whether a solution lies in devices being put in the mandatory equivalent of an airplane mode when the car is in motion, or aggressive deprogramming of behavior through a 12-step program of sorts, or other alternatives remains to be seen. Consistent laws, education, enforcement, cultural stigma, and swift, heavy penalties will also help.

DIGITIZEDCHAOS / FLICKR/CC 

But What If?

You might be thinking: But what if I have an emergency and need to call or message back while driving? The truth is that our biology has superbly trained us to be slaves to our technology by creating a false sense of urgency, desire, and reward. Danger is abstract for us because most days nothing happens. We’re not good at conceptualizing consequence until we’re staring at its aftermath. And with death and injury, that aftermath can be incomprehensible. It’s always preventable. No call, text, game, or selfie is ever worth it, period. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatal crashes rose nationwide by 7.2 percent in 2015; experts believe that the use of smartphones is largely to blame. In that same year in Washington State, distracted driving-related deaths jumped 32 percent to 160, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. That’s just deaths—not counting the 587 serious injuries, 14,601 minor injuries, and 30,195 property-damage-only collisions. That’s more than 5 incidents every hour. Add in thousands more unreported incidents and near-misses, and you get the idea. And that’s just in Washington State.

I never talk, text, or operate my cell phone while driving except for one-touch commands to operate GPS or Pandora; even the latter I keep to an absolute minimum. But several weeks ago, my insurance policy went up several hundred dollars annually. My agent said that the increase was not because of anything I’d done, but because of statewide rate hikes. Turns out that insurance companies are feeling the effects of distracted driving too. Their loss costs—payments to treat injuries, repair damaged vehicles and property, and defend insured drivers in legal actions—have jumped 16 percent over the past two years, and auto rates among Washington State’s top 20 insurers increased 5.9 percent in 2016 alone. You and I pay these costs, even if we aren’t at fault ourselves.

Political Hurdles

In spite of all this, distracted driving bills are challenging to pass. In these rancorous political times, many bills die or survive strictly along partisan lines. Legislators themselves don’t want to give up using their own devices while driving, and like the general public, are in denial or just ignorant about the issues involved.

This was brought home to me recently when I saw the words of one Washington State legislator in a social media post. Asked why she voted against one of this session’s distracted driving bills, she shot back: “This serious issue of people addicted to their iPhones is a cultural problem. We can't legislate responsibility and cultural change. It must begin with us.” 

What?? Can’t legislate responsibility? Cultural change? How about we just walk back those drunk driving and drug impairment laws too? Because our smartphones are the ultimate open container. “Us” isn’t getting the job done. Neurocognitive research has proved that beyond a doubt. Yes, change has to come from us too, but legislators need to be brave enough to take a serious stand for the common good and send a strong message to the cultures they shape and protect. Otherwise, what’s their purpose?

In a country that values personal freedom and individual rights above all else, one might argue that government regulation has no place here. But at stake are lives, well-being, property, and the economy. Personally I’d love the right to drive without fear of someone on their cell phone crashing into me, or my children to walk across the street without threat of being killed or injured by an oblivious red light runner, or to not have to literally pay for the follies of others. Who knows, you just might too.

What You Can Do

So, what can you do? Contact your legislators. Advocate for consistent laws, education, enforcement, cultural stigma, and swift, heavy penalties. Pledge to make cell phone use while driving as socially inacceptable as drunk driving. Make it a priority that you won’t enable yourself or others to perpetuate this dangerous activity.

The single best way to overcome temptation? Shut off your phone completely and put it where you can’t reach or hear it, like in the trunk. If you must use GPS, input addresses before you start moving. If you need to adjust it, wait until you’re safely stopped.

And remember, you’re always modeling behavior for your children as well. By the time they’re driving age, they’ve had at least 15 years of seeing what you do behind the wheel—a little late to tell them “do as I say, not as I do.”

_________________________

Matt Richtel writes extensively about the cognitive neuroscience behind the attention-eroding effects of technology in A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention—well worth reading if you want to learn more.

Tuesday
Aug022016

Part 2: Anatomy of a Drug Stop with the WSP

 

A few weeks later, I returned to the Washington State Patrol Training Academy for a very different kind of scenario—the drug stop. This script and setup were elaborate, intending to show cadets both how a drug-sniffing dog works and the legal complexities of such a stop. For this reason, instead of FTOs, district attorneys and other legal professionals were on hand to coach the cadets, as they are the ones that intimately know exactly what causes legal cases to fall apart. If an officer misses documenting a single fact on their paperwork, fails to read the civilian their rights, or forgets even a minor step, that can mean the difference of someone being prosecuted for a DUI or the entire case being thrown out of court with the help of a sharp-eyed defense attorney.

In this scenario, another woman and I are on our way to eastern Washington, where she is going to teach me how to cook meth. She is a long-time dealer and already has a warrant out for her arrest, whereas I have no prior record, and I'm the registered owner and driver of our vehicle. Our drug paraphernalia is in a backpack tossed in the back seat, and a K-9 officer has already hidden a small packet of cocaine under our car for her dog to find.

We are stopped for not wearing seatbelts, but of course my companion is arrested as soon as they run her license and see her outstanding warrant. In this case, two cadets are on hand, which is useful for both questioning people separately and officer safety. As my friend is getting put in handcuffs, one officer asks her how we know each other, and my friend declares we're old childhood friends. Since she's already in trouble and has nothing to lose, she's doing everything to throw me under the bus, even offering to cut a deal with the officers for her cooperation. Meanwhile, I’m telling the other officer that we just met that morning in Seattle in the line at Starbucks, and she needed a ride to Ellensburg and I just happened to be going that way. People lie and snitch on each other constantly in these situations, and it’s up to the officers to try to tease out what is actually happening through separate, careful questioning.

Asked about the bag in the backseat, I tell my questioning officer it’s hers, not mine, and that I don’t know anything about its contents, since I just met her that morning and I’m giving her a ride. He then asks if I’d consent to him searching the inside of the car and its trunk. I tell him no. He then asks if I’d allow a drug-sniffing dog to check out the car. I say sure, the cute dog can come, but I won’t allow an officer to search the inside of the vehicle. I then explain that my pot-smoking brother sometimes uses the car and there maybe a joint or two leftover in the vehicle that the dog might find, but it shouldn’t be anything more than the legal limit allowed (one ounce).

There are a couple reasons for this setup: One is that consent must be obtained for each part of the vehicle. You can tell an officer that s/he can search the inside of the vehicle, but not the trunk, or vice versa. You may wonder about probable cause, but remember that I have no record and I’m the legal registered owner of the car. They have, however, arrested my friend who does have a prior history, so they strongly suspect that the backpack in the backseat (which I‘m saying is hers) has drugs in it. But without proper consent to search and no apparent signs of my driving under the influence, they are helpless to take further action. If I had said no to the dog sniffing the car, they would have had no choice but to let me go (but retaining my friend, of course).

Another point to remember is that marijuana was legalized in Washington State in 2012. I try to cover myself by saying that the car might have weed in it in case the dog finds something, but it also makes a difference for the officers documenting the case. Prior to 2012, all Washington State K-9 units were trained to find heroin, meth, marijuana, and powder and crystal forms of cocaine, but starting in 2013, marijuana was dropped from that list. That means, however, that a mix of dogs is still working, and the dogs cannot alert their handlers as to what kind of or amount of drug they have found; so an older dog might alert for a legal amount of marijuana. Both dogs and their handlers have curricula vitae (CVs), showing their training qualifications, which must be noted by the officer at the scene; omission of such details can strengthen a defense attorney’s case.

Once I have given consent for the car to be searched by the dog, the cadet has to read me my rights and ask me to sign a paper form that I’d been read them. This step is crucial; forgetting it can jeopardize the entire case, right down to actual wording of my rights.

Piper is our heroine for the day, a beautiful and very energetic German Shepherd on a mission—to find drugs and play with her chew rope as a reward. Once she is released, she quickly circles the car, sniffing crazily. Within seconds she has found the cocaine that her handler had hidden on the underside of our Impala. She is also ready to bound inside the car, leap over the front seats, and check out that backpack. K-9 dogs are trained to either paw at or lie down when they find what they are looking for (an important consideration especially when sniffing out a potential bomb—disturbing it could be deadly).

Once Piper finds our drugs, my friend and I are both done for. My companion was handcuffed long ago and placed in the patrol car, but I've been allowed to stand outside unrestrained. The cadets and legal staff discuss other evidence that can be used. It’s generally better to keep people separated because catfights have been known to break out in the back of a squad car, but since a camera is running continuously inside the car, everything being said is being recorded, which can be pretty damning just in itself.

I’d never want to be a police officer in a thousand years. Given the prevalence of guns, drugs, aggressive behavior, and increasing volatility of people under the influence of both legal and illicit substances, the mantra of “there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop” has never been more true. Every stop has the potential to be dangerous. Participating in these training sessions has revealed how vulnerable the officers can be at every juncture. Even the act of reaching into the glove box during a nighttime stop to get my registration papers could mean sudden death for an officer if I decide to pull out a weapon. On the other hand, as an FTO told me, “You can’t live your life in fear or you’d never be able to go out there.”

From this experience, my perception of police officers has really changed. I’ve actually been stopped far more times for speeding than I care to recount (which may be surprising for a traffic safety advocate, but that too has shaped my interest in this field), and while the vast majority of the officers I’ve encountered have been impeccably professional, there have been a few notable exceptions. Sometimes our personal interaction with law enforcement, coupled by media coverage, leads to adversarial perceptions, of an “us versus them” mentality.

This unique opportunity to volunteer and witness how officers are being trained opens the door to seeing situations from an officer’s perspective, and also ask questions of why they are trained the way they are and offer input. More than ever we are living in a time where law enforcement and community need to forge strong, healthy relationships based on empathy and collaboration, not division and fear. To inquire about volunteering, contact the Washington State Patrol Academy at http://www.wsp.wa.gov/employment/academy.htm, email them at questions@wsp.wa.gov, or call them at 360-432-7500.

 

Tuesday
Aug022016

Part 1: How I Got Seven DUIs in Two Nights

It started out harmlessly enough. Flashing lights behind me, a pullover to the side of the road. They can’t prove me drunk, I thought. This will be easy.

“Hello, ma’am, I’m Officer Bill C_______ with the Washington State Patrol. Just to let you know, everything here is being audio and video-recorded tonight. I stopped you because you were weaving back there. Can I see your driver’s license and registration, please?”

Sure thing, I thought. As I reached into my purse for my license and the glove box for the registration papers, the officer’s flashlight beam pierced the darkness and splashed onto my hand, focusing keenly on it. I handed the documents to the officer and he went to his car, but not before he swept his flashlight through the back of my car. In a few minutes he returned.

“Ma’am, I see you have an open beer bottle in the back. We’re going to have to ask you to step out of the car.”

***

This kicked off two nights of the most unusual volunteering I’ve ever done—for the Washington State Patrol (WSP). Every year, one or two groups of cadets undergo 26 weeks of intensive basic training at its academy in Shelton, Washington, about 25 miles north of Olympia. Once they complete their basic, cadets then enter eight weeks of practical instruction with experienced officers out in the real world.

But during their basic training, they need help from us civilians—as actors on which to practice doing traffic stops. And not just a few individuals—this past spring session, an open call was put out for 256 such civilian volunteer actors over a one-month period. As you might imagine, using cadets and field training officers in those roles don’t provide the best learning opportunity, as they can anticipate scenarios. Untrained civilians offer a lot more spontaneity and unpredictability—exactly the kind that these cadets will see in the real world. The idea is that regardless of what the actor says or does—and I mean anything—the cadets are expected to always behave decisively and professionally.

The actors themselves are a mixed bunch, ranging from high school students to retired seniors, both men and women. Recruiting often comes from school drama and ROTC clubs, but there are many repeat volunteers, including one fellow who has been doing this for years and always comes decked out in full military fatigues, gung-ho to play the badass. Sometimes current and retired WSP officers are asked to participate because they can challenge cadets in specific scenarios. Even the Academy’s janitor has filled in when they’ve run short on volunteers.

On these two April nights that I volunteered, training began around 6 pm and continued until nearly 10. After a quick orientation meeting, the civilians are given fake registration-insurance papers and keys to various decommissioned, unmarked patrol vehicles or cars that have been seized in raids. They are also encouraged to pick out props from a box, which include open beer bottles or cans, plastic fake guns, or even labeled bundles of marijuana. The cadets get into their marked squad cars with their field training officers (FTOs) and us into our vehicles, and we all head out to a nearby business park that has plenty of intersections, parking lots, and looping routes.

Your job is to start cruising at low speeds throughout this park—and just wait to get pulled over. It might take a while, but it always happens eventually. Certainly it’s never fun to be stopped in real life, but this contrived situation truly feels surreal, especially when you see a half-dozen stops all around you. Once you’re stopped, the FTO walks up to your car and lets you know what scenario s/he wants you to play (i.e., suspended license, DUI). They may ask you to be “chippy” (rude, with an attitude). If you want to pull out a weapon, you should ask the FTO first, because their student may be too green and not yet psychologically ready to handle such a scene. But everything else is pretty much up to you, and that’s where the real fun begins.

These nighttime sessions center around DUI stops, which are a huge part of WSP’s duties. Once darkness falls, adrenaline rises and everyone’s on the alert because it’s much harder to see potential weapons hidden in a vehicle. The element of surprise and conflict goes up exponentially, especially if passengers are present.

With a potential DUI, officers are looking for a number of clues to determine if a driver is intoxicated. The most obvious is how you’re driving—if you’re weaving, driving too slowly, fast, or unpredictably—and this prompts them to pull you over. Then they look for other signs—the smell of alcohol on your breath or in the vehicle, a visual check for open containers, and how you speak and act. If they suspect you’re intoxicated, they ask you to step out of the vehicle, where they run a series of field sobriety tests to determine if you’re intoxicated. This includes you visually tracking a small object such as a pen that the officer moves back and forth, a walk-and-turn test with nine heel-to-toe steps in a straight line with your arms down at your side, and a one-leg stand, wherein you raise one foot six inches off the ground while keeping it parallel to the ground without swaying or hopping.

If you fail any of these tests, combined with the other possible indicators, then you will typically be arrested for DUI. For an arrest to occur, four out of six conditions must be met. (In Washington State, breath and blood tests come after an arrest and were not a part of these civilian training scenarios.)

I’ll never win Oscars for my acting, but improvising was a blast as I tried to think of new ways to fluster cadets. I sassed back verbally, grabbed the pen out of the cadet’s hand, pretended not to know English, wandered off from the walk-turn test, lunged for the officer’s gun during a body search, and even did a little evasive driving when getting pulled over (nothing gets officers’ heart rates up like throwing a car into reverse and backing up quickly toward them). I also resisted being put into handcuffs a few times and ended up getting thrown up against the patrol car as the cuffs were tightened, with multiple bruises on my wrists the next day to prove it.

These are all things that have happened to officers in the field, and plenty more. Our actors were sometimes assigned two or three to a car. The more people in a vehicle, the more potential for the unexpected to happen. One incident I heard about that night involved a driver and two passengers. Over the course of the stop, one of the passengers kept breaking out into full song while the poor cadet was trying to interview the driver. With the officer thus distracted, the other passenger snuck out of the vehicle and actually took off with the patrol car—the ultimate embarrassment.

 ***

Undergoing seven of these DUI stops in two nights revealed several things. One is that it’s actually physically quite difficult to pass these sobriety tests even when one is sober. I tried on several occasions to do so well at these tests that I would not get arrested, but the walk-and-turn test as well as the one-leg stand proved that my balance under pressure is not as good as it used to be.

Secondly, I was floored by the compassion and respect that the FTOs were instilling in their cadets. Things can get tricky when male officers are doing searches on females (small pistols can easily be tucked inside a bra). One FTO related a story of doing a pat-down of a young woman who started to tremble and cry. He saw that she was not faking this, and she told him that she’d been subjected to so much past sexual abuse and assault that this was her instinctual reaction when a man she didn’t know started to touch her. He stressed to his cadet that you never know who you might be dealing with, and to never ever be flippant or disrespectful, even if they’re just joking.

Although they’d already undergone many weeks of classroom training by this point, some cadets were definitely green, struggling to remember what they were supposed to say and do. Others seemed much more comfortable and almost already the picture of a patrol officer you might meet in the field. But in all cases, they were completely polite, responsive, and professional. The experienced FTOs often asked them what they were being taught in the classroom, which of course the cadets were following to the letter, but then they’d relate real-world stories in which the world is not so black and white but full of many shades of gray. Good contextual judgment is essential when evaluating each situation, they stressed.

Much of the FTO debriefing took place right in front of us actors, and not only that, but the FTOs actually asked us for our opinions of how their students did and if there was anything we thought they could have done better. In a world where American media coverage is saturated with stories of “bad cops” out to get innocent people, this sensitivity and transparency was really eye-opening to witness. Sure, one can argue that liability is an incentive, but you can plainly see the earnest dedication in these young cadets and their hardened FTOs alike. After all, that’s the reason they became police officers in the first place—to help people.

Up next: Anatomy of a Drug Stop.