Friday, January 16, 2009

Human Factors of TASERS

(NOTE: These images are random images from the internet...I have no idea what the TASER and gun mentioned below actually look like.)

At 2:00 a.m. on New Year's Day, Oscar Grant was shot by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer. The incident has sparked protests and riots in Oakland, and for many this seems like an open-and-shut case of yet another incident of police brutality. However, the officer who fired the shot is claiming that he mistakenly drew his gun after intending to draw his TASER, presumably to subdue Grant. Leaving aside the issue of whether the use of a TASER is justified in this situation (or any situation), as soon as I read this I immediately wondered about the human factors involved in this situation.

Dave Schmidt, a former police officer, offers an interesting discussion on how motor learning and and the phyhsical position of the TASER on the officer's belt may have lead the officer to confuse his gun for his taser. Moreover, as Schmidt points out, "The TASER feels and draws like a handgun, but it is completely different." If a TASER feels the same as a gun, then it seems like a blatant violation of Human Factors 101 to store the two in such close proximity on the officer's belt.

It seems like there are two things that could be done to mitigate the risk inherent in officers carrying both a lethal and nonlethal (at least usually) weapon:
  1. Ensure that the "design" of an officer's belt is not such that two different pieces of equipment with two very different functionalities are stored closely to each other. If officers's are used to drawing their gun from the right side of their body and drawing the TASER from their left side or from a leg holster, they're less likely to make the motor skill confusion of grabbing one when intending to grab the other.
  2. Require that all TASERS manufactured and/or sold in the United States do not have the same appearance, texture, or even weight (if possible) as a gun.
Implementing these two mitigations would greatly reduce the probability of TASER/gun confusion, just as human factors engineering has greatly reduced so-called "human errors" in aviation, medical devices, and even consumer products.

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