I’ll admit it. I like to drive fast — and as an officer, if certain conditions were met, I could legally flick on my lights and siren and disregard the rules of the road. After all, it’s nearly impossible to catch violators without exceeding the speed limit. But it was a calculated risk. While I was exempt from the vehicle code statutes, at no time was I relieved of my duty to drive in a safe manner and with due regard to the safety of others.
In the police academy, we had about 80 hours of vehicle operation instruction. Driving was considered a critical task: fail driving, fail the academy. (For the curious, firearms and defensive tactics rounded out the critical trifecta.) The coursework included precision driving, routine vehicle operation, and high-speed pursuit driving — all to prepare us for our duties as officers. On patrol, we were more likely to collide with objects while parking or at slow speed than at higher speeds, but for every mile of increased speed, the possibility of catastrophic injury or damage increased as well.
My academy was on the grounds of a decommissioned air base that had been repurposed. As cadets, we practiced our driving skills on unused runways. For most of us, it was the first time we’d driven a patrol car, and the academy cars were outfitted with all the standard radios and gear, plus they were modified to include full roll cages and 5-point safety harnesses. During high-speed exercises, we wore helmets.
The precision driving course was a cone course where cadets had to maneuver the car through various parking, tight turns, and reverse driving patterns. Routine patrol operations included using the radio while driving and patrolling techniques — which was really all about not becoming so distracted that you drove into a wall, or curb, or that sweet little elderly man crossing legally in the sidewalk.
Decision making was fun. With an instructor in the passenger seat, the cadet had to drive into the bottom of the Y shaped cone pattern at various speeds. At the last second the instructor would yell right or left. The goal was to react quickly enough to end up in the appropriate lane. A lot of cones gave their lives during the exercise but every cadet learned that the faster their speed, the less time they had to react to outside demands.
One of the most enjoyable exercises took place after the fire department came in and soaped the runways. While driving, friction is your friend. It keeps the wheels of your vehicle in contact with the road. Mix static friction, rolling friction, torque, soap, and giddy cadets together and you’ve got all the ingredients for a great course on skid management and braking. It was probably the closest we came to playing during the academy.
As much fun as it was let loose on a skid pan, my favorite class was pursuit driving. The cone course was massive. Instructors sat in the passenger seats, and during the initial passes, coached the drivers through curves and corners, advising when to brake, when to accelerate, and how to use the straight-aways. After a couple of spins, a suspect vehicle entered the course — and the chase was on.
For the uninitiated, pursuit driving is a lot like playing tag — only ideally without the contact. It is easy for new officers to get tunnel vision, and cops must fight the mindset that catching the suspect is always the ultimate goal. It’s not. Maintaining public safety is. On the street, pursuit driving is an ongoing exercise in risk management. In the academy, it was our first and last opportunity to chase another car without the weight of liability. On that runway, we killed cones, spun out of control, lost our suspects. We also learned how to carve corners, push our limits, and control our emotions.
I really didn’t think much about our instructors’ role in the passenger seat until I became a field training officer. Few things are scarier than sitting next to a trainee on their first code-three run. A couple of them wrapped the mic cord around the steering column because in their excitement, they forgot to put it back on the stand. That first pursuit is sensation overload: the roar of the engine, the smell of brakes, a blaring siren, red and blue lights bouncing outside the windows, the taste of adrenaline. Experience helps cops manage the overload, but it never stops being exciting.
My academy training made me a safer driver. It taught me to look beyond the hood of my car and assess my surroundings for hazards. It revealed the limits of my ability. It demonstrated that cars have limits, too, and that the quality of tires really does matter. Lights and sirens may give an officer the right of way, but they don’t add a magical layer of protection around the car. And it’s always better to arrive safely at one’s destination than crash along the way.
Happy New Year!