Remember Driver’s Educaiton? If your class was like mine, you learned about the dangers of tailgating. You know, following the car in front of you too closely.
If you do that, and the driver in front slams on their brakes, you might rear-end them. In fact, given the right conditions, there is a 100 percent chance you will rear-end the car in front of you, no matter how much you stomp on your brakes. While you may think you can stop fast enough to avoid a crash, you cannot, no matter how good your reflexes are.
There are a few variables at play that can make collision a certainty.
First, there’s your reaction time. How fast can your brain process a signal from your eyes that says, “Hey wake up! The guy in front of you just stepped on his brakes!” Your eyes have to see it, and then send a fax to your brain. Your brain has to think about this and retrieve from its memory banks the correct response. “Oh yeah, I need to tell right foot to move off the gas and step on the brake.” Then your brain has to send that message through your spine down to your leg. Your leg muscles have to wake up and start the process of moving to the other pedal.
Second, your brakes require distance. They’re designed to bleed off energy and turn your car’s forward motion into friction and heat, so your car will cover a certain amount of distance while this happens.
Last, the speed at which both cars are moving changes everything. The faster you’re both going, the farther away you have to be. When going fast, your car covers more distance while your brain figures out stuff and your brakes do that slowing down thing.
There’s a valuable concealed carry or self-defense lesson to be learned from the dangers of tailgating. It all boils down to the fact that action is always faster than reaction. This principle is the cornerstone of Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop theory, originally developed for fighter plane dogfighting. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. It describes the process I laid out above with deciding to stop your car when the dude in front slams on the brakes.
In a self-defense scenarios, when your assailant acts, there’s a certain amount of time required for your brain to observe what’s going on—that’s the first “O.” The orient stage is more complex and varies with one’s prior experiences, beliefs, and genetics. In this stage, your brain is filtering what it sees to develop context. Based on your experience, does your brain assume you’re being attacked when someone makes a certain type of move? If you fight a lot, your orient stage will be quicker for a certain stimulus. If not, your brain has to sort out what that move really means. The next stage is decision. What will the brain tell the body to do? Last, of course, it the action itself.
All of this stuff takes time, and every time your attacker makes an action, you have to go through the entire process again. In a fluid and sudden aggression, you’re in trouble because you’re constantly reacting as your assailant is starting multiple actions. You most likely keep starting your OODA loop without every finishing any.
Boyd essentially said you need to turn the tables, and by implementing your own action, you get inside your opponent’s loop and cause them to do all this response process to your actions.
Okay, enough theoretical science. What does this really mean?
If you have a gun pointed at a bad guy, they can still shoot you before you can pull the trigger, even if their gun is not pointed at you.
Don’t believe me? Consider an action/reaction study completed by Dr. J. Pete Blair, an associate Criminal Justice professor at Texas State University. At a SWAT conference, he assembled two groups of people. Twenty-four SWAT officers, with an average of 10 years experience, were the police officers in the exercise. Blair recruited 22 Criminal Justice students with an average age of 22. Most had no experience with firearms.
Blair had the police enter a building, where they would encounter a “suspect” (student volunteer) who either had their gun held at their side pointed at the ground or aimed at their own head in a suicide position. The police were instructed to command the suspects to drop the gun and do whatever necessary to protect themselves. The suspects were instructed to raise their gun and shoot at the police officer at a time of their choosing after they were commanded to drop their gun. Of course, all the guns in involved were non-lethal marking guns that leave a welt and glob of paint.
Just to be clear, in each case the officer had their gun aimed at the suspect with their finger on the trigger. The suspect, not experienced with firearms, had it hanging toward the floor or pointed at their own head.
So what do you think happened? Were the experienced SWAT officers able to shoot the suspects when they saw them starting to move? No. In most cases, the officer and suspect ended up shooting each other at approximately the same time. And when I say approximately, I mean the shots were fired within one-tenth of a second of each other.
“The miniscule edge did go to the suspects, technically,” the study reads. “Examined case by case, they shot faster than officers or precisely simultaneously in more than 60% of the encounters. Even in situations where the officer was faster, there was less than a 0.2-second difference, suggesting that the suspect would still get a shot off in most of these encounters.”
The action was measured with frame-by-frame analysis of the encounters. The suspects were able to raise their gun and fire in an average of 0.38 seconds. The officers were able to fire back in an average of 0.39 seconds.
What? You mean if I aimed my gun at someone with a gun that’s not aimed at me, they can shoot me at will, and there’s not a darned thing I can do about it? That’s exactly what I mean. Yes, you’ll end up shooting them too, but you’ll still have a brand new body orifice. It all boils down to the absolute science of action and reaction times. The suspects started the action of raising their gun to shoot, while the officers had to react to, process, and then act on that stimulus. The overhead of this process allowed enough time for the suspect to get their shot off first, although just barely.
Now there’s something to think about. This is exactly why keen awareness, at all times, is so critically important. You’re already being the eight-ball if someone attacks you, because they chose to act, putting you in a position where you have to react.
Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.
Image by Tom McHale