“I think people are starting to look at these trends where a lot of officers have been injured and killed in a vehicle and they’re starting to see that we do need to tackle this issue.” says Larsen. “And we need to change the way we train, too.”
Fundamentals remain essential. But Larsen also uses web-based training in addition to simulators to teach intersection clearing and, like Brown, to mimic real-life scenarios with graduated difficulty depending on a driver’s skill level. And it works. Larsen’s found retention rates are higher with web-based training than instructor-led. He feels success is more about making the right decision than training in procedures, and adults can participate in web-based instruction on their own time.
“We never really forget how to drive; it’s just kind of like riding a bike. You cannot drive a car for a couple of years and just like a bike, get on it and [drive] it. But every six months to a year we need to make sure we get those officers to train on their decision-making, what they’re doing in the vehicle, how to recognize hazards … that’s what’s important.”
Across the country, driver training often takes a backseat to other types of training, despite the influx of traffic fatalities.
“Firearms is usually mandatory, but there are not a lot of agencies that make driver training mandatory, so that’s a problem because we’re losing a lot of officers,” says Larsen. “And some of those are training issues. As far as what the officers are doing, they’re driving too fast and not using all of their safety equipment, which is causing us a lot of injuries and deaths.”
The tech Catch-22
In addition to finding the most effective training methodology, emergency vehicle operation leaders keep tabs on what, exactly, is getting officers killed in crashes. FLETC recently partnered with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and various universities to look specifically at how equipment is installed in vehicles. “The typical rack in the center of the car on the hump with radios and computers is harming officers in itself,” says Brown.
Reconfiguring the cockpit just might save lives. According to a recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involve some sort of driver distraction. Visual (eyes off the road), cognitive (mind off the road) and manual (hands off the steering wheel) were the three main types of distractions considered in the study. Doesn’t this just sound like another day on the job?
The introduction in December of a proposed ban on all mobile devices for cars—even hands-free devices—may have been a little hastily construed (and can you imagine the already over-worked men and women who would have to enforce such a law?), but it does lead one to wonder what might change if in-car technology at least went hands-free for citizen drivers, and maybe law enforcement, too.
The University of New Hampshire’s “Project 54” began back in 1999 as an initiative aimed at helping first responders reduce distractions by putting all cruiser systems that are traditionally separate into a single interface activated by voice or the push of a button on a screen. The technology is now widespread, and a number of agencies have taken it for a ride. Andrew Kun, the project’s co-director, estimated more than 1,000 vehicles and 180 communities and agencies statewide use the systems now, including the New Hampshire State Police. Over time UNH has partnered with other firms that can integrate the system commercially.
One company offering another potential hands-free solution is Mobile PC Manager out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mobile PC offers a distracted driving application called ScreenSafe, which allows fleet managers to create custom groups of vehicles each with unique organization settings. If needed, the fleet manger can specify configurations that only apply to specific cars. ScreenSafe would not affect computer function at normal speeds, but would remove screen distractions while in “hot pursuit” situations where vehicle speeds may exceed 90 mph.