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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sometimes We Need to Save People from Themselves

I was recently asked to represent the Aurora Police Department at an event sponsored by AT&T. The corporation has launched a campaign against texting and driving and they invited me and several local legislators to help them send the message.

On my way there, I was formulating my thoughts about what I was going to say if asked to speak. The appropriate message to send as a police officer is that texting while driving is illegal and there are consequences to breaking the law. As true as that is, the threat of a ticket or an imposed fine is not always enough to change behaviors.

This started my thought process on changing human behavior and I realized that there are several methods that might appeal differently to different people on this topic.

I thought I might tout some statistics about the dangers of texting and driving. After all, it might be interesting to note that in 2009, 5,474 people were killed in U.S. roadways and an estimated additional 448,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes that were reported to have involved distracted driving. (2009, FARS and GES). It also might be important to know that drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (2005, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). While this is all factual information, I have found that statistics and data don’t resonate with people enough to alter behavior. After all, we don’t believe we will ever be one of those statistics because bad things happen to other people!

Then I decided I would apply simple logic in the hopes that it would convince the left-brain drivers that texting is dangerous. Using a cell phone while driving, whether it's handheld or hands-free, delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. (2009, University of Utah). Let’s assume that you are operating a piece of machinery that is roughly 4,500 lbs. (the average weight of a car) and traveling at 55 mph. You either read or answer a text message which diverts your attention from the road for approximately 5 seconds causing you to veer over the center line where you collide with another piece of machinery in motion. I’m no astrophysicist but I can tell you that I understand intellectually the propensity for bad things to occur when those two moving objects meet. Even with this understanding, many of will still disregard the danger of texting and driving.

And so I decided to appeal to the emotional side of people. After all, we don’t change our behaviors or our thoughts and ideas until we are personally influenced – that is, until something affects us directly. My hope it to alter your behavior before you are affected personally by a tragic loss thereby sparing you the pain you would feel by losing a loved one for something so senseless as texting while driving. When I was a patrol officer, I responded to a call for a one car roll-over accident. The driver was ejected from her car and so were the 20 Portillo’s sandwiches that she was bringing home for her son’s birthday celebration. Her phone was found nearby with a text message that she was in the middle of writing that said, “I’m on my way hom---“. She never got to send that message because she ran off the road. In fact, she never made it to her son’s birthday party and she won’t be there for any others because she died instantly.

The thought of living without someone you love or them enduring life without you should be enough to get you to alter your behavior. Alas, it isn’t.

And that is why the government must intervene and create laws prohibiting such actions and police officers must enforce those laws.

Sometimes we have to save people from themselves.

Friday, September 7, 2012

What's the Worst Thing That Can Happen?

Whenever my kids express anxiety about something they want to pursue in their lives, I try and quell their fears by asking, “What is the worst thing that could happen?”

Usually the answer involves a failure such as, “I might not get the part”, or “I might not make the team”.

Once they’ve provided what they believe to be their worst case scenario, I ask, “Are you willing to accept that outcome?” It’s interesting to watch their faces as they ponder the projected outcome and weigh whether or not they want to assume the risk.

I find that more often than not, if you can visualize the worst case scenario and accept that it might be a reality, the fear dissipates and you move forward because you have made peace that the outcome might be negative. In moving forward, you hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

I’m often mistaken for an optimist but I’m actually quite the realist.

I think we do ourselves a disservice when we subscribe to the notion that everything is going to work out or when we teach our children to aim for the stars without preparing them for the long fall should they miscalculate their reach. When we force ourselves to see potential barriers, we can better prepare for the quest ahead and take measures to overcome them.

Every police officer should ask themselves when they gear up to hit the street, “What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?” The answer is that they may not make it home at the end of their shift. Any police officer who runs towards gunfire (or firefighter that runs into a burning building) understands intellectually and conceptually that there is a possibility that they will meet their demise in doing so. And yet, they accept that risk and continue to serve. If they didn’t, they are not suited for the profession.

We don’t just send our public servants out with superhero capes and tell them to save the day. Instead we train them vigorously on topics that depend upon the risk they incur. We know that making a traffic stop is one of the most dangerous situations for an officer. With that in mind, we devote many training hours to traffic scenarios so our officers learn to interpret body language and demeanor and assess very quickly if there is a potential threat.

We also study the failures of others and try to determine the actions that led to the failure so we don’t emulate the mistakes. Failures are just as valuable as successes because we can hardly find the thing that works until we have discovered what doesn’t.

Naturally, when we ask ourselves the worst case scenario and realize that the answer is potentially fatal, we are going to weigh our actions and take greater precautions.

But I find that most people in life who don’t take risks are still afraid to fail even when there isn’t a threat to their mortality. We are creatures of comfort and anything that disturbs or threatens our environment is sometimes too much for us to bear. We remain stagnant because we are afraid to make any movements that would upset the life we’ve settled into because we are afraid of what others might think or we fear the unknown.

The next time you are faced with a challenge or are pondering whether to pursue something in your life, ask yourself “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Maybe the answer is that people will judge you or criticize you. Maybe it’s bigger than that. But once you have determined what it is, you can decide if you are willing to accept it.

Make peace with it.

Now do it.