Improving Officer Driving Skills

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.

Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot

Photo: Mark W. ClarkPhoto: 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."[PAGEBREAK]Traditionally, law enforcement agencies have used their oldest cruisers for driver training because the administrators don't care if they get even more beaten up. But with recent changes in technology, a new vehicle equipped with electronic stability management and a different drivetrain must be used in training so officers can practice driving with them.

There is actually a button that, if pushed, allows the driver to diminish the use of the stability control, so the new cars can be driven with or without it, which is helpful in training. But if an officer is thrown into a new car and expected to just know how to drive it, the new weird button will be a mystery, as will how to properly make use of its technological advancements.

"Cars are getting safer and better," says Earwood.  But of course there’s only so much a machine can do to improve driving. Officers need to be aware of what they can and should do, what their vehicles can do, and the limitations of both.

Everyone acknowledges there's not enough training, and not enough driver training in particular. Smaller agencies in particular have especially limited resources when it comes to driving instruction. Therefore it's important to put an emphasis on learning the essentials, if nothing else.

Common complaints from upper management include braking too quickly at the last minute and crashing when backing up. These habits cause damage to many a police car, and practice can remedy these problems. But overall, these are not the most important skills to focus on. That's because when put behind the wheel, people tend to have certain habits that prevent them from driving safely, especially in a high-stress situation such as a skid. 

"I can tell you what people need to focus on," says Earwood. "Three basics: What are your eyes doing, what does your right foot do, and how are you using your hands?"

It takes a trained instructor sitting in the passenger side while an officer drives to identify any weaknesses in these three areas so problems can be corrected. And the best way to do that is in skidding conditions.

Earwood worries that some agencies aren't spending enough time with officers behind the wheel. Time and money are usually the biggest factors. But there is a wide range of options for simulating a skid to teach officers how to react before they need to on the road in the middle of a call.

You don't want to learn on an icy roadway how to properly maneuver your vehicle. That's where simulated skid training tools come in.

Larger agencies such as the Michigan State Police use a skid pan. This is a large area of asphalt covered in a sealant and then sprayed with water to approximate conditions from rain to ice. This requires money to create properly and enough space in which to slide around at high speeds. Not every agency has this luxury.

A long popular more cost-effective alternative is the Skidcar. It bolts onto the car and utilizes shopping cart-style training wheels to simulate a skid. 

"A lot of it is being able to put the driver into more than just a coned course. They need to be in an environment where they can learn how easy it is to fail," says Dane Pitarresi of Skidcar. "That's one thing we can do with a Skidcar, because at 20 to 30 mph it’s like driving on a roadway at 80 to 90 mph."

A relative new kid on the block, EasyDrift manufactures smooth rings that wrap around and hug the back tires of a car to simulate a skid without the use of a skid pan. Because the tread is no longer in contact with the ground, the vehicle "breaks loose" and goes into a skid at speeds of 15 or 20 miles per hour. This allows an instructor to conduct skid training at 25 miles per hour and up to 40 mph for evasive maneuvers, instead of higher speeds usually experienced on a skid pan.

"The incredible thing is, the way you're sitting in and driving the car, including all your reactions, will be more like you're at 70 to 80 mph," says Louis Callard, managing partner of EasyDrift. "So you're teaching the driver to have very quick, smooth, affirmative motion. And that's what's important, even though you're doing it at a slow speed."

This means EasyDrift can also be used in a smaller space, which benefits agencies that are limited to conducting driver training in a local parking lot, for instance. An EasyDrift ring will last for 20 to 30 hours depending on the conditions under which it's used. A smoother surface will cause less wear and tear.

FAAC's Driving Force is a true simulator that allows officers to experience driving without stepping foot inside an actual car. Its driving scenarios are highly realistic, and incorporate the use of a radio and an MDT or laptop, with a "cockpit" designed to replicate an officer's actual car. This is not usually possible in an actual cruiser on a driving course. The FAAC simulator can be used to simulate a crash without any real injuries and evaluate how an officer performs. It can also be seamlessly incorporated into shoot-don't-shoot scenarios. 

Unfortunately, some officers dismiss its effectiveness. It's not meant to replace in-car training, but it certainly has its place.

"You have to try the simulator and not prejudge it as a toy," says Deakins. "It's a training system, just like force option simulators."

L-3 D.P. Associates' PatrolSim driving simulator provides similar benefits that complement training time spent behind the wheel.

Experts say if you don't use it, you lose it. And you can't afford to let your driving skills diminish. So take advantage of the tools and instruction your agency has to offer. Take it seriously and make the most of it.

Regardless of how officers are taught, they need to want to learn, and get rid of any bad habits they might have acquired when they first learned to drive. Driving a police vehicle requires its own set of skills. "They need to come to it with an open mind and walk away from that training with a mindset to apply what they learn," says Rogers.

Outside of training, a whole host of other attitudes can affect driver safety. Chief among them is an acceptance of driver safety as a priority. Police department policies reflect these changes. 

"I've seen a paradigm shift in pursuit policies across the country, and a shift in emergency response policies," says Thomas Witczak, master EVOC instructor at Fox Valley Technical College in Wisconsin. "There seem to be more controls such as speed thresholds and having to stop at red lights, some during pursuits. And the policies are easy to replicate in the simulators. You can see a significant decrease in problems."

This shift is not limited to agency brass. Individual officers are more willing to consider risks to themselves and others while driving. For example, more officers are thinking about the fact that getting into a crash en route to a call complicates matters rather than helping, he says. They're also more willing to call off a pursuit.

"There was an attitude at one time, 'I'll pursue him until the wheels fall off; I'm going to catch him,'" Witczak says. "Now officers are more inclined to evaluate the situation first before initial pursuit, and while in it, evaluating whether to continue or not."

Witczak still advocates that supervisors monitor officers during pursuits to make sure they are driving safely, however. It can be easy for an officer to get caught up in the moment. But overall, safety is more top of mind than in the past. And that includes more officers wearing their seat belts.

"There's that old wives' tale that 'I need to have my seat belt unbuckled to get out quickly.' That's not true," says Witczak. The retired Apple Valley (Wis.) Police Department officer teaches officers to unhook their belts without looking as part of their training, and it becomes second nature. It just takes practice and a willingness to learn, like everything else.

"The big thing is attitude," says Witczak. "We're not better than any other drivers. We have a lot more to concentrate on. But the important thing is that we don't take on too much. The driving part needs to remain a primary part of our awareness."

What's been termed distracted driving is definitely a concern. You're required to multi-task in your line of work. There’s just no way around it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be smart about your actions behind the wheel.

To hear experts talk, you can't look at your car-mounted laptop or MDT, but you can’t not look and still do your job. The best advice is more realistic. If you must access your computer or phone while driving, give yourself enough room, a space cushion, between you and the car in front of you so you’ll have time to brake if need be. And if it’s an emergency that requires you to significantly pick up speed, keep your eyes on the road for that period of time.

"When you get speed out of the equation I can keep a  car under control, but with their distractions it's tough," says Earwood. "Police driving is the toughest driving there is."

That's why a willingness to focus on driving skills is so important.

Driver Training Tools:



L-3 D.P. Associates Inc.

SkidCar Systems, Inc.


Effective Pursuit Driving (video)

LAPD Evaluates Driver Training with Patrol-Car Choice

About the Author
Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot
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