Back to driving school

On January 18, 2012, Calcasieu Parish (New Orleans) Deputy Randall L. Benoit, 41, was killed in a head-on collision when an unidentified driver crossed the center line and smashed into the deputy’s vehicle. Just days later, Officer Kelly Mayfield was traveling west in his police cruiser en route to a non-emergency call at about 2:30 p.m. when his car was struck head-on. Mayfield, a veteran officer for the Franklin, Ky., Police Department, was treated for serious injuries.

Unfortunately, stories like these are all too common. According to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) Officer Down Memorial page, the number of U.S. law enforcement fatalities spiked by 37 percent in 2010, an increase that followed on the heels of a two-year decline in on-duty deaths. Now the number of officer-involved car accidents remains quite high, ranking just slightly below that of gunshot fatalities.

Simulating precarious conditions

“Those studies are what have driven the changes to our training,” says Bruce Brown, chief of the Driver and Marine Division (DMD) at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC). Brown, along with many others in the industry, is taking a closer look at law enforcement training practices, new car technology and behavioral patterns with the hope that more accidents can be avoided (and more lives spared)on the road.

Driving instructor training establishments like FLETC and POST (Police Officer Standards and Training) work every day to save lives through better education. FLETC’s Glynco, Ga., headquarters maintains four driver training ranges, each consisting of an emergency response driving range, a non-emergency driving range and a skid pan. In addition, the facility has 52 vehicle simulators and 24 marine simulators. FLETC conducts driving training using approximately 355 vehicles of all sizes and shapes. State and local agencies from across the country continually replicate these programs within their own departments.

FLETC instructors find the best and most effective training combines simulators with range time. Driving simulators for police, fire and EMS have been on the market for a while now. The technology continues to hold sway for a few reasons: simulators are cheaper than using regular cars, and they can be customizable to suit the user experience and to mimic real-life distractions. No longer are road scenarios one-size-fits-all. In the FLETC criminal investigator training simulation, for example, drivers in a “plain clothes” car must engage in surveillance activities while at the same time make decisions to avoid a crash. Brown points out another use of simulator technology that has proven successful includes taking as much data as possible from actual accidents that resulted in an officer fatality, then recreating the accident for other students to train through the same scenario.

“We constantly have to have our instructors trained in how to use simulations,” says Brown. “By using [simulation software] in that manner, we have seen a very effective change and a lot of people are rethinking how they drive.”

Instructors who take these techniques home must be constantly willing to alter the way they instruct. Brown cites a study done by the California POST that shows a proper blend of simulators training followed by actual time on the range can reduce collisions by up to 10 percent.

Better decision-making yields better results?

Sgt. Doug Larsen is another advocate of using simulators for sharper on-the-road practice. Larsen, a POST instructor, co-designed, maintains and operates the Emergency Vehicle Operations Course for the State of Utah, and provides direction to create effective, safe driving curriculum and operational simulator scenarios. In September 2011 Larsen was elected to the board of ALERT International, an organization dedicated to research and development, as well as the sharing of information, ideas and innovations in the area of emergency vehicle response operation.

“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.

Larsen says that while in-car technology makes officers a lot more efficient, it also offers more distractions. “If they can’t manage those properly, then it just causes us more issues. But some of these hands-free cars that are coming out allow officers to keep their eyes up, and not focus so much within the cab of their vehicle. The more we can do to keep the officer’s eyes out and looking down the road, the better.”

Re-write policy to better protect drivers

Some might say it’s no wonder the number of police-involved traffic fatalities is climbing. While many incidents are truly unavoidable, public safety professionals must battle daily with an increasing number of distractions. But the problem doesn’t end there. NLEOMF and other sources indicate that simple carelessness is a factor that is not to be glossed over.

Statistics show not all cops are fastening their seat belts, while others are simply driving too fast. Now may be a good time to review your agencies’ day-to-day driving practices in addition to clocking in more time at “school” and researching hands-free options. As technology changes, so does our behavior. Does your agency have texting policies in place? How about enforced seat belt laws?

“It’s mind-boggling that large numbers of police officers are being killed for not wearing their seat belt,” says Brown. “And there’s a number of different guesses at why they aren’t. We had a police chief recently talk to us about the number of accidents his agency was having and the number of injuries, and we sent two people to look at their driver training program. We thought their driver training program was excellent, so our guys did a little bit of riding and looking at policy. We found there was no policy about wearing the seat belt, and there was no policy about texting. And what was happening with these folks is they were driving down the road texting on their cell phones and drifting off into the other lane and having collisions, and with no seat belts, the officers were getting injured.”

There isn’t a silver-bullet remedy for accidents, and working inside an LE mobile office will always be risky. But Brown says this awareness, this culture of change has already radically altered training practices.

Instead of “getting there fast,” the focus is now on “getting there safely.”