Was an official reprimand really called for in this case?
A police officer was officially reprimanded for hitting a light poll with his cruiser.
A Willowbrook police commander was issued a written reprimand after crashing his police SUV into a light pole in a shopping center parking lot earlier this year, public records obtained through a Freedom of Information request show.
The one-vehicle collision caused roughly $7,500 in damage to the police cruiser, receipts indicate.
According to a narrative of the crash included in the records, Cmdr. Stephen Finlon was turning around in the shopping center parking lot to investigate a suspicious car when he struck the pole with the driver’s side of his cruiser.
“It was fairly late at night and he witnessed a suspicious vehicle so he curved around to check it out and apparently hit the light pole,” said village administrator Tim Halik.
When I read about what happened to Cmdr. Finlon, my first thought was that this might be an accident that was caused by inattentional blindness. Turning the SUV around, with his eyes on the suspicious vehicle, Finlon may not have seen the light pole, even if it was in his line of vision. It really is possible that he was blind to the light pole because his perception was organized to watch the suspicious vehicle. Should we punish people for errors that are the result of normal perceptual processing?
Think about it this way. Eyewitness errors are normal. Even when witnesses insist that they are absolutely certain about their recollections of an event or their identification of a specific person, they make shocking errors that can have grave consequences for someone who is falsely accused of a crime. So if we don't hold eyewitnesses accountable for making these extremely consequential errors, why should a police officer be reprimanded for an error arising from normal perceptual processing?
Human factors psychologist, Mark Green, writes more about accidents due to inattentional blindness:
[...]All of these real accidents and a large number of others occur under strikingly similar circumstances: someone performing a task simply fails to see what should have been plainly visible. Afterwards, the person cannot explain the lapse.
The person making the error is likely to be held negligent. While assigning blame and deeming someone as stupid or careless might provide emotional catharsis, it does little to explain why such accidents are so commonplace. Why do intelligent, diligent and thorough people so often fail to see the obvious?
The answer lies in inattentional blindness, a condition that all people exhibit periodically. As the name implies, it is the failure to see an object because attention is not focused on it. Although the phenomenon has long been known, recent evidence shows that it is much more pervasive that anyone had imagined and that it is one of the major causes of accidents and human error.