Arrive alive: The importance of LE driver training
As training budgets continue to be cut, it's imperative agencies maintain adequate levels of training for the one activity cops do more than any other – driving
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By Tim Dees, P1 Columnist
Driver training has always represented a paradox in law enforcement. Cops arguably spend more time driving than any other single task, but the topic gets a small fraction of the total time in basic academy training, and seldom comes around for in-service training. With the exception of state police and highway patrol academies – where the driver training tends to be excellent – most recruits don’t get enough training in emergency vehicle operations.
The need for this training is evident. Of the 134 line of duty law enforcement deaths in 2017, 35 percent were vehicle related – even more than gun-related deaths. This statistic hasn’t changed much from year to year. The unfortunate facts are that the roads are a dangerous place, and many cops aren’t the expert drivers they would like to think they are.
Driver training is hard on the cars
Getting police administrators to authorize or put on more driver training can be a hard sell. The usual approach is to set up a day course on an unused aircraft runway, big parking lot, or housing development under construction. The cops may or may not get a classroom session, followed by a day of racing around cone patterns and quick reaction/lane change courses.
When the cars come back from the course, they need new tires, brakes, maybe an alignment, and occasionally new transmissions. This gets expensive quick, and taxes a fleet that might already be aging and short of working cars.
There are other approaches to driver training that don’t cost as much, and may be more effective. They usually combine classroom, online and behind-the-wheel time into a blended format.
Use multiple media and formats
The classroom portion is the one most often neglected, and it’s the simplest to present.
Most of us learned to drive instinctively, and have never been taught the physics associated with motor vehicle operations.
Understanding concepts like threshold braking, understeer, oversteer and turn apexes often comes from watching NASCAR and lacks depth and context. A knowledgeable instructor with some suitable training aids can make your officers a more informed corps of drivers.
The ready availability of dash cam videos offers opportunity for real-world examples. Having the instructor break down some portrayals of mishaps and successes reinforces the lecture portion and provides a foundation for discussion and later consideration when the officer is on the road.
Emergency vehicle operation is also a good topic for roll call training. Broken up into brief segments of five minutes or so, the trainer defines and gives examples of key concepts, or shows a video of a pursuit or accident and invites discussion as to what went wrong. Given that the officers will be going directly to their cars when the training concludes, they can put the new information to immediate use.
Think about sharing a simulator
Driving simulators are far more advanced and realistic than was the case even 10 years ago. The video game industry has advanced simulation technology far more than might have been possible if this was only an industrial application.
Some simulators are configurable to show streets and landmarks in the area where the student works. The instructor can set up virtually any situation in advance or on the fly, and, of course, the student can run the scenario as many times as desired, and never so much as dent a fender.
The limitation, as usual, is money. The best simulators have price tags that run well into six figures, and efforts to make them portable have not gone well. The components are usually sensitive enough that they get damaged if installed in the back of a truck, or if they are torn down and re-assembled repeatedly at remote locations. It’s usually best to find a fixed location to install driving simulators, and then to bring the students to the facility.
If your agency has a regional academy within a reasonable distance, that might be the most logical place for a simulator installation. Academy students can use it, and time can be set aside for local agencies to train their own officers. Fire and EMS agencies might also be interested in participating, especially if the vendor has simulations tailored for those roles.
The cost of these setups makes them a good choice for a cooperative purchase and maintenance agreement with the academy sponsor and other local agencies.
Practical training doesn’t have to be high speed
Finally, behind-the-wheel training doesn’t have to be all run-and-gun stuff that wears down the cars.
A precision driving course, laid out with traffic cones, might not see speeds exceeding 45 mph or so. Many patrol car crashes are low-speed incidents, sometimes with the cars moving backwards, because the drivers have not had extensive training in safe backing techniques.
If nothing else, officers need to be cognizant of their own skill levels, the performance their vehicles are capable of, and environmental factors like weather and traffic conditions. If you can get them to consider these things instead of just flooring the accelerator and moving as fast as they can en route to a call, they’re far more likely to arrive safely, and to arrive at all.
About the Author
Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.