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Safety Spotlight: Staying Safe by Practicing Situational Awareness

Dec. 16, 2021
The foundation of situational awareness is to look, think, and act.

You may not be able to control your surrounding environment, but you can control how you operate. Over the years, my peers have joked that my head is on a swivel — especially while behind the wheel. Situational awareness is a preventative tactic and something we all can benefit from learning.

The foundation of situational awareness — whether you’re operating a vehicle or walking through a neighborhood is to look, think, and act.

Look. Practice relaxed alertness by being aware of what is going on around you. Put yourself in a position to observe as much as possible. Use all your senses to heighten awareness. Staying relaxed allows you to take in more information; fear causes you to take in less information.

Think. When observing new information about our changing environment, we can make decisions to keep ourselves safe. Every environment has a baseline that is “normal.” Being aware of differences doesn’t mean it is a threat. It just gives you something to pay attention to. Putting the information you observe into context — so that it has meaning — allows it to become actionable.

Act. Have a plan of action based on what you have observed. If you get into the habit of asking yourself what you would do in a situation that poses a potential threat, you are practicing situational awareness. 

Auto Awareness
Practice is one of the best instructors. An infographic we use at ACRT outlines some situational awareness best practices, including vehicle safety.

Whether you’re using a fleet or personal vehicle, keep these tips in mind.

  • Plan your route both in and out.
  • Drive around the block before deciding where to park.
  • Park strategically.
  • Don’t open the door or roll down a window. If someone needs help, call 911.
  • Don’t work in your vehicle at night. Do paperwork in a well-lit area with people or at the facility.
  • If you are hit by another vehicle and suspect foul play, drive to the nearest police station or fire department.
  • ·Have your keys ready when going to your vehicle.

Following these guidelines allows me to practice what I preach to my team. While I try to set a good example for my team and peers, I also keep my safety in mind. When driving to and from work, I often switch up my routes to help stay alert and knowledgeable of the areas I’m traveling through.

It can be easy to find yourself zoning out during monotonous drives and even experience highway hypnosis. This can be incredibly dangerous as a person’s level of situational awareness plummets during these times.

Drowsy driving, like highway hypnosis, can greatly impact a person’s awareness behind the wheel. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, “Drowsy driving is the dangerous combination of driving and sleepiness or fatigue. This usually happens when a driver has not slept enough, but it can also happen because of untreated sleep disorders, medications, drinking alcohol, or shift work.”

I like to reflect on an incident that took place nearly 20 years ago when coaching new team members on staying aware on the road. After playing in an all-day softball tournament, I had to make a three-hour drive back home and ultimately had a hard time remembering the last 20 minutes of the trip. Driving after a long day of work or play can make it easy to lose track of your surroundings and find yourself in a daze.

If you find yourself in a position where you’re experiencing highway hypnosis or becoming drowsy, the CDC suggests the following tips for staying awake and alert.

  • Get enough sleep! Most adults need at least 7 hours of sleep a day, while teens need at least 8 hours.
  • Develop good sleeping habits, such as sticking to a sleep schedule.
  • If you have a sleep disorder or have symptoms of a sleep disorder such as snoring or feeling sleepy during the day, talk to your doctor about treatment options.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol or taking medications that make you sleepy. Be sure to check the label on any medications or talk to your pharmacist.

We should always be alert, aware of our surroundings, and know where we’re driving to. Always think ahead.

Value in Vigilance
The energy you spend in evaluating every situation for potential hazards delivers an excellent return on investment. Over time, this exercise will become natural and require less effort. In the Look, Think, Act model mentioned above, relaxed alertness allows us to filter out the ambient noise of the environment, which is important because our brains are not capable of parallel processing. However, the limbic system (the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses) will subconsciously alert us to hazards which we commonly refer to as a “gut feeling.”

Take it from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, “All perceptions are subject to filtering and focusing: people constantly filter information and shift focus. People also produce a lot of internal inputs such as thoughts about what to do next, stress, memories of similar experiences, and fear.”

While it may seem pessimistic to some, I try to visualize what could go awry in every situation and mentally prepare options to mitigate those circumstances. Practicing situational awareness begins long before our scheduled activities. Being prepared involves proper planning, understanding risks, and implementing solutions. 

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