Situational awareness at roadway incidents: Honing a defensive mindset

First responders not only face “D-Drivers” but also cognitively blinded drivers distracted by the flashing lights


The 2022 Firefighter Safety Stand Down, taking place June 19-25, focuses on the importance of situational awareness to help firefighters solve problems, prevent bad outcomes, and make better decisions in high-stress environments. This series covers how to apply situational awareness to five incident types to be covered in daily focus activities: structure fires, EMS, wildland incidents, roadway response and acts of violence.

Developing and maintaining situational awareness is a three-step process that includes:

  1. Perception: Gathering information about what is happening around you
  2. Understanding: Making sense of the information you gather
  3. Prediction: Anticipating future events to prevent bad outcomes

Responders use perception to gather critical clues and cues about the emergency. Some of the information is shared with responders over the radio, some of the information may come from preplans, and some of the information is gathered during the size-up. Think of the information gathered as pieces to a puzzle that responders must assemble. The assembled puzzle pieces form a “picture of understanding” that allows responders to make sense of what is happening.

The responder’s understanding drives the decision-making process. If responders shortcut this process, they may find themselves making decisions before they understand the problem that needs solving. As you can imagine, this can lead to errors in decision-making, flawed tactics and tragic outcomes.

Roadway incidents

Roadway incidents can be especially challenging for responder situational awareness. Roadway incidents require an awareness about the incident itself as well as a defensive mindset for a secondary incident caused by other drivers.

As I have heard my good friend and roadway safety guru, Jack Sullivan, warn responders so many times, there are a lot of “D-drivers” out there – distracted, drunk, drowsy and disgruntled, just to name a few Ds. If you are a student of near-miss and casualty incidents, you already know that apparatus on roadways are being struck often. Even more tragically, responders are being injured and killed by these D-drivers.

But it’s not the D-drivers that I want to highlight here. There are plenty of resources on that topic on the Emergency Responder Safety Institute website. Rather, let’s talk about cognitively blind drivers.

Bright, flashing lights on emergency vehicles can make responders less visible to some drivers, even if they are wearing high-visibility apparel. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. Humans have an ingrained, instinctual, attraction to things that are loud, bright and moving (especially moving in the driver’s direction). During our early inhabitance of earth, those features were often present in creatures who wanted to eat us. So we learned to pay attention when things in our environment possess those characteristics.

This is only the start of the problem. In fact, responders can be fooled into thinking that if drivers are paying attention to our bright, flashing lights, that’s a good thing – they’ll see us and not hit us. That makes sense. But there’s a sinister catch.

Every flash of every light entering the eyes of a driver represents a new piece of information that their brain must process and understand. The more flashes of lights, the more information their brain must process. This can lead to sensory overload – too many flashing lights and, subsequently, too much information to process. If a driver’s brain becomes overloaded with too many inputs, the driver may stop processing the meaning of inputs altogether.

When a driver’s brain stops processing inputs, you become vulnerable because the driver may not see you. Now, keep in mind, this may not be a D-driver. Rather, these may the innocent, experienced, well-rested, sober, mature, sane and responsible drivers. Their brain is trying to process too much visual information, and it shuts down the processing of some inputs. Depending on how much stress the driver is feeling as they approach your emergency scene, they may also experience tunnel vision, a narrowing of their visual field, causing them to lose peripheral vision.

One of the best practices for maintaining situational awareness on roadway incidents is to assume every driver could be a D-driver or a cognitively blinded driver.

Valiant efforts are made to educate the motoring public about the dangers of being D-driver, and I believe they will have limited effectiveness for two reasons.

  1. There are too many selfish vehicle operators out there who think they are better drivers than they really are; and
  2. According to the American Automobile Association, the number of licensed teen drivers is on the rise. This is not to say teen drivers are bad drivers, though they do lack experience; rather, it is to say the influx of new drivers annually will far exceed our resources to educate them about the consequences of D-driving.

Further, I doubt any driver is being taught that flashing emergency lights can make them blind to the presence of responders on the roadway – all the more reason to have a strong defensive situational awareness mindset on roadway incidents.

learn more about situational awareness

Safety Stand Down resources for each incident type, as well as general situational awareness information, are available at the Safety Stand Down resources center.


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