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Improving Officer Driving Skills

Improving and maintaining perishable driving skills is just as important as qualifying with your firearm.

May 01, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Mark W. Clark
Photo: Mark W. Clark

Statistically, in the last 20 years before 2011 more police officers died every year from vehicle-related causes than from gunfire. And car crashes result in more career-ending injuries than any other cause. Is your agency doing enough to keep you from becoming part of these statistics? Are you?

Training is often a casualty of budget issues, and driver training usually doesn't rank as high on the priorities list as training in firearms and defensive tactics. But what activity do you engage in most while on duty? Unless you walk a beat, it's most likely driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set a goal in 2009 to decrease the number of officer vehicle-related deaths by 15% as of 2015. So far, the results look promising. 

Cal P.O.S.T. has spearheaded a campaign to reduce LEO deaths from driving through comprehensive research, including pilot programs evaluating different types of training that could lead to policy changes across the country.

Begun in 2009, the SAFE (Situation-Appropriate, Focused, and Educated) Driving Campaign includes researchers and law enforcement. P.O.S.T. has assembled a Vehicle Operations Training Advisory Council (VOTAC) and Research Team (RT) including representation from the federal government and state and local governments and academic institutions in California, Washington, Utah, Colorado, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Florida.

The study has found that "blended training" that includes EVOC and law enforcement driving simulators results in the fewest collisions, and that training about every two years is an optimal timeframe to reinforce decision-making to prevent collisions.

The study is ongoing, but it’s a good place to start.

One of the biggest training issues right now is the whole new crop of law enforcement vehicles released to replace the discontinued Ford Crown Victoria. If you haven't started driving one of these new cruisers yet, you will soon.

Ford has ditched rear-wheel drive for front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Other manufacturers still offer rear-wheel drive but their cars are very different than they were a decade ago. So even seasoned veterans will need to adjust to changes such as stability control. The Los Angeles Police Department is part of a SAFE Driving Campaign pilot program, but is waiting to officially adjust its skid training until it’s been decided which model will replace its Crown Vics.

But experts say all of this is just part of a constant evolution, like saying goodbye to the V-8. Remember, anti-lock brakes were met with skepticism at first, and ABS is now accepted as a normal and beneficial safety feature. It just takes some getting used to, and training in its proper use.

"Since our unit was established in 1989, there've been a lot of advancements in police cars, such as stability control and anti-lock brakes, so we've tailored our training to those advancements in technology," says Sgt. Matt Rogers. He's spent the last 10 years as a police vehicle instructor and motorcycle instructor for the Michigan State Police Precision Driving Unit. Electronic stability management is the newest in a long line of upgrades that he’ll need to account for in his instruction. 

When a car hydroplanes or otherwise loses traction with a surface, it slides or skids. Most people—three out of five—instinctually hit the gas when this happens, which is the wrong reaction. Law enforcement officers have been taught to turn into the skid for many years. This basic concept will not change, but some officers might be tempted to push a car's abilities and let electronic stability control automatically slow the car down and handle a skid for them instead of learning to avoid the problem altogether.

"It's kind of a crutch," says Rogers. "So out on our performance course, we're teaching our guys not to get to a point where that stability control would be activated."

Professional driving instructor Terry Earwood agrees with this approach. Officers need to learn the right way to handle a skid, and the approach is different in cars with stability control and new drivetrain options. For example, if a car is sliding sideways a front-wheel-drive vehicle will be better able to straighten out. It's also important for drivers to know that stability control works by automatically applying the brakes, so overuse can wear the brakes out. But Earwood is a big proponent of these changes, and expects they will be easier to adjust to than some veteran officers might think.

"If we'd had stability control all these years and all-drive cars and then lost it, then we'd have to go back and teach everybody. It would be a problem," says Earwood. "But because all of the new additions are pluses, they will make everyone a better driver tomorrow. And there's not that big a difference in the handling of the car."

Unfortunately, not all agencies are currently incorporating the newest training techniques that take new technologies into account. And that's a concern, says Earwood.

"In so many smaller departments, they’re teaching things that I taught in 1972," the veteran driving instructor says. "We need to tune up what we're teaching now, with the electronics, the ABS, and work more on why we teach what we teach."

Tags: Driver Training, Officer Safety, L-3, EasyDrift, FAAC, SkidCar, Michigan State Police


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