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Simulated Driver Training

Vehicle sims are getting so real you may soon need to gas them up.

February 01, 2002  |  by Dave Douglas

I ease into the seat of the Crown Victoria patrol vehicle and reach for the key on the steering column when, at the intersection directly in front of me, a yellow Ford pickup blows through a stop sign and slams into a green Jeep Cherokee. The Jeep pulls over to the curb, but the pickup speeds away from the accident scene.

It looks to be a hit-and-run, and the way the Ford is being driven I have an under-the-influence driver too. I keep the pickup in view and shout to the Jeep driver to see if he's injured. He's OK.

On go my lights. As I begin the pursuit of the fleeing pickup, a Taurus coming through the next intersection fails to yield to the siren. Avoiding that idiot, I accelerate to catch the pickup. I put out the failure to yield on the radio and ask for cover only to find there is none. I ask for the department helicopter. It's grounded.

The pursuit is all mine now, and it's going to be a while before help comes my way. The pickup is coming to a heavily traveled boulevard. This time it goes through the red light and is almost struck by cross traffic. The driver makes the next left and I follow.

I get in behind him and with one hand on the mike and the other on the steering wheel, put the license plate out on the air. The suspect slams on the brakes. I drop the mike, steer and brake to avoid hitting the truck. If I hit him, my airbag will deploy, putting me out of service, and the pickup truck will probably sustain little damage.

At the next major intersection, the truck turns right, narrowly missing a school bus. I'm thinking this guy is really drunk or crazy, or maybe both. We accelerate down a long city street 50, 60, 70 miles per hour. My competitive juices are flowing and that natural tendency we have as cops is taking over. I'm not going to loose this guy, and I will put him in jail. He runs two more stop signs, and I just miss a white Honda Civic crossing the intersection oblivious to the emergency lights and siren.

By now, we are out in a residential area and the pickup accelerates past two school buses, blows another red light and makes the next left. I'm up over 70 mph now. I brake hard and make the left a few seconds behind the pickup only to be greeted by a dump truck and front-loader now blocking the roadway.

After the delay to clear around the construction equipment, the road ahead is empty. No cars. No pickup. Not a soul on the sidewalks to point the way. I shut down the emergency lights and siren, pull over, hit the steering wheel a few times and shout a few things that cannot be written here.

My heart rate is up, my breathing heavy, I'm perspiring, and I need to flush away the adrenaline that has been dumped into my system.

All of a sudden, the lights in the room come on and the sergeant in the instructor's uniform touches me on the shoulder and says, "OK, now. Let's take a look at this and see what we could have done better here."

Five other cops standing behind me start snickering. I know I blew it. I was unsafe, and if this had not been a simulation, I would have put the public that I have been sworn to serve in danger.

The playback of the pursuit shows in stark detail how I chased the computer-generated yellow Ford pickup through a well-marked school zone. There were school buses parked on the curb loading and off-loading kids. There were kids standing on the corner and some walking across the street in well-marked crosswalks. The only things the playback lacked were parents shaking their fists at me and filling out complaint-on-an-officer paperwork.

Decision-Based Training

The philosophy for driving simulation is similar to that of use-of-force simulators, which do not teach us how to shoot only the decision process on when to shoot. In a like manner, driving simulation doesn't teach us how to drive, it teaches us how to think while driving.

Driving skills are a combination of physical as well as mental processes. So much of driving is seat-of-the-pants. We feel a great deal of the process in G-Forces. You turn left and your body is forced to the right. You accelerate and are pushed back in the seat. It's basic physics. We have driven so much that we are able to feel when we are going too fast. We then make corrections until it feels right.

Therein lie the limitations of most driving simulators. Because most affordable driving simulators are stationary, there is only graphical input on which to base the feeling of G-Forces. The current fidelity level is about 80 percent of real driving. This makes basic, physical, driving instruction on simulators impractical.

Consequently, the real value of driving simulation is its capability to teach the student good decision-making skills. A simulator can put a driver in situations that in real life would be highly dangerous.

A case in point is the pursuit scenario detailed at the beginning of this article. It is designed to create a situation such as a minor, non-injury hit-and-run accident. The situation escalates as the pursuit develops and additional factors can be introduced such as drunken driving, an attempt to have the officer hit the suspect's vehicle, and cross-traffic disregarding the emergency lights and siren. Then, after the driver is sufficiently immersed and challenged in the situation, the pursuit goes into a school zone.

Doron’s interactive system includes the necessary onboard patrol equipment, heightening realism and training value.

In review it becomes apparent how much a driver can miss once tunnel vision takes over. None of us would purposely endanger school children by pursuing a misdemeanor violator at high speed through a school zone. However, when the phenomenon is actually simulated, the learning experience is greatly enhanced and a tool is provided for overcoming tunnel vision in the future.

Intersection accident avoidance is another area that has shown marked improvement with simulator-based training. A number of years ago, the San Antonio (Texas) Police Department had a problem with officers being involved in intersection accidents. The department developed an aggressive training program involving on-track driving and simulation. The entire force completed the training, and intersection accidents declined by more than 51 percent.

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