An Interview with Marcus Wynne
Interview by Gila Hayes
Defunding police and refusal to prosecute has removed impediments to crimes like carjacking. A common concern expressed by members is what to do if targeted for crime when driving to work, to medical appointments or the grocery store. That’s why I recently read and reread a blog post showing an extraordinary video of a South African armed guard in an armored vehicle defending against mobile attackers with decisiveness, aggression and driving skill. The blog, which I read regularly, is written by neuroscience and training researcher Marcus Wynne, who several months earlier also caught my attention with a great post about key skills he had distilled into hands-on training for an associate’s wife and daughter living in a large city where carjacking has become common.
Both posts provided a valuable distillation of real defensive driving skills for dangerous environments, so I gathered up my courage and asked Wynne if he would talk with us about detecting threats while driving, learning high threat driving skills (this part of our discussion may surprise you), and honing alertness to recognize danger far enough ahead to avoid it. His résumé is extensive and readers can check it out at https://marcuswynne.com/consultant/ . I started my chat with Wynne by asking about experience that prepared him to deter threats while in a vehicle.
Wynne: My experience relevant to a discussion of protection driving starts with military service in South Korea. I’d been levied from the 82nd Airborne and was invited to volunteer for a unit that provided close protection for diplomats and general officers in the Korean Demilitarized Zone. I protected field grade officers and diplomats from the multi-national United Nations Command, Military Armistice Commission from a variety of threats which included assassination, bombings and kidnapping.
After active duty, I did private sector high threat protection operations primarily as a singleton. My government and military contacts helped me get started. I attended the first CQB Services (Hereford) training course in the US, which brought the SAS VIP Protection Course to the US. I trained and worked with the CQB cadre as a student, training coordinator, and instructor for various USGOV and USMIL high threat protection training courses. Driving and counter-ambush driving were part of the protection curriculum. We also taught close quarter battle, hostage rescue, and other skill sets to the same audience.
I continued working private sector and part-time with CQB Services. I was recruited into the Federal Air Marshal Program right after the bombing of Pan Am 103 by FAM instructors attending the CQB Hostage Rescue Training Course. During the war (1989-93), we worked with a lot of USGOV agencies and forward deployed military assets. I had occasional call to exercise high threat driving skills overseas during that time.
After the war I went into the private sector again as a researcher, consultant and training designer specializing in high-stress training. Among notable achievements at that time was introducing the OODA loop concept to law enforcement training, advising the NASA Astronaut Program on training and selection, and initiating work with a wide variety of Tier One units and government agencies on how to implement cutting edge neuroscience into training (more details on my website).
I get asked, often, how a guy with no Ph.D. ends up working with the top military neuroscience researchers in the world. My response is that I stay in my lane. I’m a generalist. I read through the research and figure out how to apply it in training. That’s in large part a gift honed by specific training and research.
As a researcher, my focus in plowing through neuroscience research is to find APPLICATION. During one of my presentations at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) the Program Manager for Accelerated Learning said, “You can read through stacks of complex research, find the critical insights, and figure out how to make that work in the real world. We have lots of brilliant researchers. What we don’t have is people who can quickly and easily bridge the gap between lab findings and make it work in the field for the SME (Subject Matter Experts). You make research WORK in the field.”
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing many of the concepts I introduced in the 1980s and ’90s take hold as common/best practice. My work has been adopted at the national level in Israel, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, and in various units involved in counter-terror domestically and abroad.
Probably the biggest piece of my background that’s germane to our discussion about driving? I’ve done the work in the field under heavy threat, and I’ve researched it, and I’ve developed it into methods that have been taken on whole by the top practitioners in the field.
eJournal: In working to apply these specialized skills to daily safety of our members, knowing that they won’t have the privilege of taking in-person training with you, let me ask where does the ordinary citizen learn to recognize and avoid threats like carjackers or violent protests on the streets that, frankly, are starting to look more like Belfast during the Troubles than Seattle, Boston, or Minneapolis?
Wynne: First, I am working on ways to make that training accessible via Zoom. I work really hard to simplify things. Only two things about driving for civilians matter. Basic driving skills–what you get in high school–and situational awareness focused on recognizing the specific threat germane to carjacking, etc., and having a simple experience avoiding it. Period. That’s borne out by field experience, AAR analysis, and research.
My friend and mentor Ed Lovette, whom you’ve previously interviewed, was the leader in the tactical industry who formalized study and evaluation of after-action reports. He found after studying some thousands of incidents involving personnel who’d been through advanced driving that essentially none of the skills they’d been taught were utilized. What was actually used in terms of driving skills were driving forward, driving around, backing up and turning around. The key element was their situational awareness – their ability to see the attempt unfolding while they were driving.
Situational awareness is everything. In my old neighborhood in Minneapolis, we went from one of the most crime-free areas in the Twin Cities to having over 50 armed carjackings in a month, with the targets being single women or women with children. That’s almost two car jackings a day in an eight-block radius. When I was in South Africa working with Counter Car-Jacking and Car Theft Teams – [chuckling] there is nothing quite like rolling down the highway in a modified BMW at 160 mph, leaning out the window with an FN – that was very nearly the ratio of carjackings and thefts they had, though the level of violence was significantly higher.
eJournal: Using carjacking as an example – the attacker must make contact with you to hurt you, so I want early detection. You mentioned after action report analysis, but we’re literally trying to create a non-event through our awareness.
Wynne: As you mentioned earlier, as an experiment, I took two completely non-tactical lifestyle-oriented people and in two hours took them to a level where I could comfortably (as a seasoned practitioner and former instructor of the specific skill set) assert that they were operating at roughly the 80% of what a fully trained/experienced protection driver would exercise in a high threat environment. And we did it in a high threat environment, and one driver dealt with a close evaluation by probable carjackers while we were training.
We did that by changing how their brain processes and sorts information in real time.
eJournal: How did you alter brain processes? Many won’t know what threat looks and sounds like until the attacker drops the guise under which he approached and the violence begins.
Wynne: In detecting threats, you need to know what threat LOOKS and SOUNDS like. All the classroom PowerPoint, lecture, and secondhand video tapes fall to a distant third when compared to the training value of a role-played scenario in the real-world environment. All my training courses are 90-95% experiential. I rarely lecture, and my favorite phrase is “Less talk, more walk. Get it done.”
So, sitting in a real car, and having people walk up or run up on your car teaches you very rapidly and in the way most useful to your brain under stress what threat LOOKS and SOUNDS like. Set up a learning environment where you walk through a single-person-on-foot carjacking, to a small team of foot-mobile carjackers, then a vehicle-mounted team of carjackers. Let the student experience how important mirror positioning is, how simple scanning and eye position on the windshield is and do it in real time.
This is an important element of neural-based training design for people to learn skills they have to use under stress. Instructors who utilize the lecture, demonstrate, practice model work off the assumption that lecture and demonstration create an effective cognitive map of using that skill under stress. Obviously, it works – to some extent with some people. Our research and approach create a cognitive map of using the process through experience first, and then plugging in the intellectual understanding after people have an experience. Ride the bike first, then lecture about biking skills.
For specifics on what to look at in the context of driving skills, you need to adjust your mirrors so as to eliminate blind spots on your flanks (or get stick on micro-mirrors to enhance your side mirrors) adjust your rear-view mirror to enable the broadest rear perspective, and most important, shift your range of focus on the windshield to the upper third of the windshield. Most people look at the bottom third of the windshield (like at the plates of the car in front) or middle third (one maybe two cars ahead). When you shift your vision to the upper third, it positions your eyes to see farther down the road (like a block or blocks) and it positions your head so as to enable better peripheral vision as well. The technique of scanning is to maintain a regular scan at all times in the vehicle – right, center (rear), left back to center, right, center (rear), left. After a while that becomes automated and it’s effortless to know at all times what’s a block or so ahead of you, what vehicles are beside you or behind you, or when in a city and slowing who’s around your vehicle when you slow to a halt and so on.
eJournal: The video you posted on your website of the attack against the South African armored car at https://marcuswynne.com/superior-performance-under-life-threatening-stress-aka-grace-under-fire/ has got to be the most dynamic demonstration of using mirrors while driving I’ve ever seen. When we’re positioning mirrors and scanning them and scanning forward through the windshield, what sections of the landscape around us are we checking?
Wynne: The goal is to automate your scan using properly positioned mirrors and to see as far, wide and deep as you can. Once you consciously practice this – in traffic – you’ll find you’re already doing most of it. Then you add conscious attention to expanding/extending that visual scan, and you’ll see all that’s relevant. You should be able to easily scan a block forward and back and maintain constant awareness of what’s beside you as you drive.
eJournal: How much detail does even a moderately aware person miss during their daily commute? With training and practice, how much can ordinary folks’ brains take in and act upon?
Wynne: I’m going to indulge my neuroscience nerd for a minute and introduce some concepts woven into all my training. Your sensory channels (we’re primarily concerned with visual and auditory at this point, but they also include taste, smell, kinesthetic feeling, somatic marking, etc.) pick up EVERYTHING – to the tune of approximately 14 million bits of data per second. Your conscious mind can process in a range of 5 to 11 bits per second. Those are the parts you CONSCIOUSLY attend to.
So, what does that tell us? That filters exist. Where does all that data go? It gets sorted and prioritized according to preconscious filters that are formed by your genetics, life experience and specialized training. The data is sorted and prioritized according to those filters. The process looks something like this: sensory data - preconscious filters - pattern recognition/creation - narrative recognition/creation - automation (modifying preconscious filters - pushing up what’s necessary in real time to keep the organism safe).
So, rather than nerding out on details of how much the brain can take in and act upon, I focus on the fact that learning and training takes place in the sensory process, therefore you can train yourself to recognize potential threats and you can modify, through training, your perceptual process so that you can enable a very high baseline state of situational awareness.
You can change your brain and enhance your cognitive processes involved in recognizing and avoiding threat.
For situational awareness, the relevant piece is by turning conscious attention to the pieces of your habitual (automated) scanning process, you can improve it, which creates measurable changes in the efficiency of your visual processing. So, you’re changing your filters to take in and process more information – and then you automate that process. And it’s way faster to do it in real time while driving than it is to lecture about it.
eJournal: One of your blog posts mentioned seeing a method called “commentary driving” you first saw used by operators who’d worked in Belfast. What’s a commentary drive and why do officers use it?
Wynne: Commentary driving is a useful technique both for police work and for Joe-Civilian. In the context of preparing for driving with a self-protection mindset, it’s useful first as a training tool and then as a subconscious program installed in the driver. Essentially, it’s just “stream of awareness/consciousness” about what you see going on around you while engaged in driving. It’s useful in training the brain to pay more attention to the details that flood your brain while you’re driving.
I was first introduced to it as a surveillance technique for singletons working in a wired (hidden microphone) car with a radio transmitter as a way of communicating in real time with other members of the team, operations center, and QRF (quick reaction force).
I began to use it to model the thought process of maintaining situational awareness. An example would be, “I’m driving south on Nicollet, slowing as I see a yellow light ahead, I’m maintaining a full vehicle length behind the car in front of me. I’ve scanned ahead, right, left and behind looking for target indicators which in this neighborhood may include lingering individuals in close proximity to the intersection, or vehicles that will pull up and block me. I’m examining the vehicles within three cars of me for indicators like multiple passengers, doors opening, and movement concurrent with my slowing down to stop. At the stop, I maintain situational awareness by scanning all my mirrors which I have previously adjusted to eliminate blind spots...” and so on.
eJournal: So that is focused on awareness while in the car. Are we starting the commentary drive as we fire up the engine?
Wynne: Driving safety starts before you leave the house. Pre-launch is triggering a pre-visualized sequence of events and working a checklist.
- You’re driving. Where?
- What’s your purpose?
- Do you drive the route regularly?
- What do you know about any existing or emergent threats along the route?
- What is your general threat assessment (woman with a stalker, or a dude with a stalker, traveling at night, enemies, etc.)?
- What is the time of day?
- Have you had any events?
- Do you have a cell phone with you? Is it charged? Do you have a charger in the car?
All that should run through your head BEFORE you pick up your car keys. You need to switch on BEFORE you leave your safe space (house). That’s where guided commentary comes in useful for training.
When I trained the women I mentioned earlier, we started in the house with the initial intention to drive someplace. I talked them through that sequence, and their situational awareness kicked up via questions like:
- Is there anyone outside your door?
- Anyone near your car?
- As you approach your car, can you see all around the car?
- Is there anyone lurking around? Walk around your vehicle.
- Anybody hiding behind it or in the back seat?
- Keep scanning when you unlock the car and get in, THEN LOCK THE DOORS. Then start the vehicle and check your mirrors all around before you pull out, and so on.
eJournal: Oh, good point–awareness increases before entering transition zones–not just when the car’s moving.
Wynne: Transition zones include:
- Leaving your house to approach your vehicle.
- Getting into your vehicle.
- Departing in your vehicle.
- Driving en route anywhere your progress is impeded, slowed, or blocked.
- Approaching your destination and selecting your parking spot.
- Getting out of your vehicle.
- Moving from your vehicle to another safe zone (store, work, etc.).
We could list a million potential hazards but here’s the thing: with tuned up and educated situational awareness and coaching on what YOUR internal danger cues are, you’ll be looking and listening and feeling for what is out of place for you in that context. That can include people lurking around, or people or vehicles moving with you, etc.
eJournal: When you see, hear or feel any of those cues, what’s the best response?
Wynne: In terms of countering, there is way too much emphasis on a laundry list of “see this, do that.” What WORKS in the real world, especially for people who are NOT tactical professionals, is to keep it simple: If something trips your trained (via experience, not lecture) attention, keep moving or if where you are is secure, stay and seek help/assistance.
Laundry lists of “see this do that” make instructors feel good but doesn’t translate to quality usable material when the student is under stress/threat out on the bricks. This has been rigorously researched by Ed Lovette and practically applied in very high-risk applications. What works the vast majority of times is a simple driving skill set the drivers already have, and situational awareness which translates to better visual driving skills. You see it further away, and you avoid it.
eJournal: In the context of in-vehicle safety, how different should our behavior be if we carry a gun or if we do not?
Wynne: For a civilian who’s routinely armed, I strongly believe that there should be no difference in how they apply defensive driving skills. While driving or in the vehicle, nothing should change to how they handle impending threat unless they are stopped and are unable to drive forward, around, or back up from the problem.
Being armed extends your options. For a civilian, however, there MAY be a tendency to jump to the gun progression instead of sticking to the vehicle progression, which is stay in your car, and drive away. The only time I think a gun may be relevant for a civilian is in the transition zones getting in or out of the vehicle, or if one is completely stopped and the vehicle is unable to move, and one is forced to debus (get out of) the car – and that’s when you’re no longer driving.
eJournal: I’ve seen some wild-n-crazy drills around shooting from moving vehicles. For a Network member who is consistently armed, how high of a priority does having skills and training to shoot from a vehicle deserve?
Wynne: For a civilian, no priority at all. It’s edu-train-ment to steal Pat Rogers’s phrase. I’ve done the courses in hostile environments and I’ve shot rifles and handguns out of moving vehicles. It’s not a skill set one will learn and retain under stress from a course unless it’s reinforced in one’s work/professional environment. It goes against the principle of the civilian defender – break contact, violently if necessary, notify the proper authorities. We’re not cops or special operators or undercover singletons. I’d rather see somebody take a safe driving course (not a tactical driving, though those are way fun).
eJournal: What considerations apply to shooting from a stationary vehicle?
Wynne: For civilians, most are completely unaware of the physiological impact of firing a handgun from inside a vehicle through window glass without eye or ear protection. If one was forced to actually fire from within a stationary vehicle (and in my belief and experience, you have to have massive fail on situational awareness and basic driving skills to get to that point) one would need to be aware of the impact of unprotected ears/eyes (sound, glass fragmentation) non-optimal position (seated or getting out), dealing with restraints like seat belts or people blocking your doors or coming through your windows and windshield, etc.
There are plenty of people out there who are willing to train people in the various aspects of fighting from inside the car – I don’t do that. When I train civilians, I work on the 80% that will most likely work for them with a minimal of training and maximal stress – so I focus on the basic driving skills coupled with situational awareness and specific training experiences that focus the brain on the most probable threats they may encounter.
eJournal: It is frustrating knowing that we’ll likely never be in the same place at the same time for a training session. I would recommend, though, that members read about the Minneapolis ladies you trained at https://marcuswynne.com/baby-driver-counter-carjacking-and-critical-path-design/ . It is a great synopsis and I’ve read it several times. Because you make it freely available, we don’t need to repeat it here. There is so much we can learn about how not to be the victim of an attack while in our cars. What key points do we need to keep in mind as we close this conversation?
Wynne: 1) Read your news and get a Twitter feed to get real time updates on crime reports.
2) Practice situational awareness and notice what has changed in your neighborhood.
3) Modify your daily travel routes to minimize exposure and risk.
4) Be prepared to take evasive action to avoid riots and mobs.
5) Have a plan to deal with that.
When you see trouble, drive away. Forward, backward, left, or right. No fancy driving moves. Keep the vehicle moving and at stops make sure you have enough room to drive away.
When in doubt, drive away and communicate.
Keep it simple. Instructors in the tactical field tend to overcomplicate things. Stick to what people will actually USE under stress. If you have basic driving skills, that covers the technical skills. The place to focus is on your situation awareness in the context of driving. As noted earlier, I am actively experimenting with a Zoom project that will bring the expertise of my Tier One instructors and myself in a format to deliver some of this material in a useful fashion.
And one last skill that gets overlooked: the ability to drive forward slowly. Why slowly? When people get surrounded by rioters/protesters/mobs attacking the vehicle, the panic reaction is to stomp on the gas and start running over people. While there is a time and place for that, especially in the US right now where those incidents will be live-streamed in real time, the ability to stay cool and continue to move forward slowly at 5-10 mph enables you to use the mass of the vehicle to push forward, allows people in front plenty of space/time to get out of the way and any video would show that you didn’t use the car as a weapon to run over protesters. The reason we stop is we don’t want to hurt people who are trying to hurt us. By having the tool, to be used at the appropriate time, of driving slowly around or forward through a non-compliant crowd, you retain the option to accelerate, go around, etc. to get away. And you still retain the ability to hit the gas if you have people breaking windows.
Driving slowly adds a step in your ladder of escalation with the vehicle as a weapon, which is articulable and demonstrable with outside video.
eJournal: This is a refreshing change from the usual “how to” articles we all read! Thank you for directing our concerns to what really matters and how we can change habits that put us into harm’s way.
To read more of this month's journal, please click here.