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.