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How driving simulators can make your agency safer

Driving simulators can place trainees in a simulated but realistic environment, from which they can emerge better prepared for scenarios on the road


Technical director Dragos Maciuca poses while sitting in a driving simulator in the immersion lab of the Ford Motor Company Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, Calif.

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

By Melissa Mann
Police1 Contributor

With the increase of officer deaths, injuries and extensive litigation associated with inmate transport and other driving involved scenarios, there is a heightened focus on transport and other vehicle driver training. The use of computer driving simulators for officer training has increased dramatically among the law enforcement community. Simulator training has been found exceptionally effective when used in conjunction with traditional track training.

Today’s Cadet Driver
Today’s generation of academy cadets’ background reveals a surprising lack of regular driving experience. Those lacking fundamental driving skills among academy cadets calls for an aggressive approach to emergency driver training and a necessity to develop more sophisticated driver performance skills before they graduate as officers.

Cadet emergency vehicle operation training traditionally is included as a designated portion of the standard law enforcement academy curriculum. An academy training module usually consists of basic high speed maneuvers and patrol specific driving techniques.

Reality Isn’t Real
Try as they might, an academy driving instructor can simulate an intersection with unexpected cross traffic on a training course, but the reality is a cadet knows the instructor will not collide with him during a simulated high speed pursuit. Unfortunately, there is no realistic emulation of perceived stress or consequence for the cadets’ lack of environmental awareness.

Generally, there are few effective methods to use when studying a cadet’s driving behaviors and performance. These methods have not offered the capacity to test the academy driver in critical safety predicaments, including high speed pursuits. Standard training fails to offer any level of realism or ability to repeat incidents for evaluation of officer performance.

A law enforcement officer has an exceptional number of demands placed on them once they take their place in the driver’s seat of a patrol car. Factors that demand the officer’s attention while driving at high speeds include anticipation of suspect driver’s actions, observance of other citizen drivers, monitoring radio traffic from dispatch, monitoring of the in-car mobile dispatch computer (MDC) unit, scanning and awareness of surroundings including pedestrians or inclement weather condition factors.

Simulators can be designed to replicate real life situations, including the necessary multitasking which is required of the officer while operating the patrol vehicle. Simulators are built to include all the features of a patrol vehicle including the MDC unit, emergency lights, siren and radio. The officer can even perform the simple task of getting behind the wheel of the simulated vehicle and starting the engine with a key.

The Science of Driving
Driving is a task in which the human visual system is the primary sense utilized. Motion perception, speed calculation, proximity to other vehicles, road configuration and obstacles are all crucial visual cues for depth perception while operating a vehicle. The human brain integrates all of the visual cues, processes information and determines depth and distance.

Driving simulators are designed to integrate a virtual experience and can play a valuable role in training police academy cadets through realistic visual cues.

Simulators offer an affordable training alternative that can reproduce rapid situational perceptions of police patrol work within the confines of a safe driving environment. In a driving simulator, each lesson is presented with a high level of effectiveness for each student as scenarios are conducted under realistic circumstances where the cadets judgment and decision making skills can be exercised freely. Simulators can help remedy the cadet’s lack of driving experience. A poor decision can be made, yet the student can re-drive the same scenario for evaluation and, eventually, successful completion.

Simulator Design
Driver training simulators offer the opportunity for agencies to practice high risk scenarios which are too dangerous to practice live. The scenario can be presented to the student safely and played out in its entirety. For example, an incident including a high speed pursuit in congested traffic which ultimately may need to be called off by the cadet and handled differently can be fully practiced.

Completing the entire stressful scenario is an invaluable tool for the development or critique of critical decision making skills. As it cannot be practiced under any other realistic circumstance when in training, the use of a driving simulator is essential. Simulators can also be programmed to replay scenarios for remedial training. The recordings can be replayed for the student to watch themselves from several angles so their performance can be observed and critiqued by both the student and instructor. The simulators can be programmed to provide many critical decision making exercises in which realistic situations are presented at graduated levels of complexity to the officer or cadet.

Today’s driving simulators have been called a video game on steroids. Some vendors even offer programs which contain technologies that originated from the Atari driving video games. Many driving simulator concepts evolved originally from military and aviation training simulator programs.

With the technology of today’s emergency driving training simulators, scenarios can be created to replicate realistic situations. Law enforcement driving simulators can be built to include 360-degree panoramic 3D views of roads and surrounding areas. This view can also be produced through virtual goggles. Simulators often come equipped with frequency vibration generators, ABS breaking and steering feedback mechanisms to provide a realistic feel of the road and full sensory driving experience.

Safe and Affordable
Driving simulators are an affordable and effective tool for the training of both officers and cadets. They offer the ability to streamline training to specific causes of officer-involved vehicle incidents, including excessive speed and poor critical decision making skills. Stimulators can also improve officer reaction and response times. They can be fully configured to integrate into an agency’s current emergency vehicle operation training program. Driver training simulators offer un-paralleled learning opportunities for officers in the safest environment for everyone involved.

Melissa Mann is recently retired from the field of law enforcement. Her experience spanned 18 years which included assignments in Corrections, Community Policing, Dispatch Communications and Search and Rescue. Melissa holds a BS in Criminal Justice and MA in Psychology with an emphasis on studies on the psychological process of law enforcement officers. She holds a deep passion for researching and writing about the lifestyle of police and corrections work and the far-reaching psychological effects on the officer and their world.