Every fall, the manufacturers of law enforcement vehicles gear up to have their vehicles tested by two of the nation's premier law enforcement agencies: the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Michigan State Police. What began as in-house testing to help these agencies determine the best vehicles for their own purposes has evolved into testing that is relied upon by law enforcement agencies throughout North America, and to a lesser extent internationally.
Depending on who you talk to, both agencies claim to have been the first to conduct these comprehensive tests, and that's only the start of the good natured rivalry exhibited by the staffs at each department. Whatever the result of the "We were first..." tug of war, it's safe to say that both agencies started vehicle testing in the early 1970s.
At the time, there was little information to go on, other than manufacturers' claims and anecdotal info from "old-timers" among the patrol ranks. Everyone had their favorite vehicle, and easily found much to dislike about other makes and models. This "tastes great-less filling" approach just wasn't good enough, so the LASD and MSP empirical test models were developed, and continue to evolve to this day.
Although both agencies' efforts are highly respected, the testing methodologies of each agency differ significantly. The respective testing models clearly reflect elements of each agency's primary mission, with other aspects of law enforcement vehicle usage thrown in for good measure. The end results are two separate and distinct test models that complement each other in many ways. While each agency's tests are comprehensive in their own right, taken together, a true picture of comparative law enforcement vehicle capabilities comes into focus.
Both departments separate test vehicles into two general categories: those suitable for high-speed pursuit driving (considered general service patrol vehicles), and those that aren't (classified as special service vehicles).
The Los Angeles Model
This is probably a good place to acknowledge that, although the Los Angeles tests are done under the auspices of the LA County Sheriff's Department, members of the Los Angeles Police Department participate as well. Many of the tests are shared equally; if four different drivers are set to test a particular vehicle, there will typically be two officers from each agency doing the testing.
The Los Angeles tests consist of a driver's subjective evaluation, conducted over a 1.57-mile-long high-speed driving course. This test is designed to evaluate, identify, and eliminate obviously unacceptable vehicles, due to vehicle instability or other factors. Vehicles that fail here are not tested any further.
Acceleration and brake testing come next, followed by a "pursuit course" conducted on a closed 2.45-mile city street course, incorporating many turns and other typical street driving challenges. This test is timed, and again, vehicles that don't pass are not tested any further.
There are five other tests that are done on each vehicle: a heat test, wherein various vehicle fluids are measured to make sure they are within temperature specifications; tire tests, which are evaluated after completion of the 32-lap high-speed driving test; an ergonomics evaluation; a mechanical evaluation, conducted by contracted vehicle mechanics; a communications evaluation, conducted by specialists from the Sheriff's Communications and Fleet Management Bureau; and a fuel efficiency test, wherein vehicles are twice driven over a 100-mile course on city streets and freeways.
The Michigan Model
Testing by the Michigan State Police is similar in scope to the Los Angeles program, with some elements emphasized to a greater or lesser degree. Though different in some respects, the banks of tests complement each other.
The Michigan tests also involve acceleration and braking tests, conducted similarly to those in Los Angeles. One difference is that Michigan records a top speed for each vehicle (measured over a 14-mile course), while Los Angeles captures only a quarter-mile top speed. Both tests feature runs on a high-speed vehicle dynamics course, but the Los Angeles course is relatively flat, while the Michigan course (conducted at the Grattan Raceway in rural Michigan) is made up of gently rolling hills.
The MSP team combines ergonomics and communications evaluations into one rating form, which is completed by a group of officers for each vehicle, with the scores being averaged. There is no mechanical evaluation reported, and the fuel economy comparison is based upon the manufacturers' EPA fuel efficiency ratings, rather than an actual driving test. Temperature and tire tests are not reported, unless there is an anomaly, which is noted in the testing results.