Bryan Vila at sleep and performance lab
SPOKANE, Wash. – As a growing number of states impose bans on drivers’ use of cell phones and warn of the dangers of distracted driving and fatigue, those enforcing the bans are exempt – and forced to be some of the worst offenders.
“Back in the old days, police officers would patrol in teams of two, with one person driving and the other talking on the radio,” said Bryan Vila, a professor of criminal justice and a researcher associated with the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center (SPRC) in Spokane. “Now, they travel solo in a patrol car equipped with two or more radios, a laptop, cell phones, GPS, radar equipment, and cameras and other recording devices.”
Add to that fatigue caused by long hours, shift work and night work, and you have a potentially lethal combination, he added.
To find out exactly how lethal, Vila and his team will be conducting a laboratory study to examine the impact of fatigue and distractions on law enforcement officer driving performance. They will compare collision risk for those who work day shifts with those who work night shifts.
The work will be done under a new, two-year contract with the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).
The study is part of a continuing line of research related to police officer performance, safety and health spearheaded by Vila, who heads a simulation laboratory located in the SPRC that is designed to mimic police officers’ work environments.
Vila hopes the outcome of the study will help explain results from a preliminary analysis done by POST on data from all traffic collisions involving on- and off-duty California police officers over the past 13 years. The data, he said, show that the rates of fatalities and career-ending injuries among California police officers have increased, whereas similar rates in the general population have decreased.
Although the analysis identified excessive speed and failure to yield as the two major accident causes, Vila believes fatigue and distraction may be the underlying causes.
A pilot study conducted last fall served as input into the experimental design for the study, which will start this summer and will be conducted in the simulation laboratory. Volunteers drawn from local law enforcement will come into the lab twice – once at the end of a long work week and a second time at the end of a three-day period off work.
Each time, they will go through a series of tasks that measure attention and driving performance. They will complete different driving scenarios on a simulator that can be outfitted as a patrol car or a regular passenger car to simulate work-related driving or the commute home from a shift. Eye-tracking devices enable the research team to examine the subjects’ level of distraction while driving.
“Despite significant improvements in automotive safety technology in the past 20 years, U.S. police officers are still more likely to die from traffic accidents than from felonious acts such shootouts and fights,” said Vila. “We hope this study will contribute to our understanding of this issue, so we can get closer to identifying appropriate remedies.”