- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

MERIDEN, Conn. - The drivers in Center City are idiots. They cross double yellow lines, ride curbs and run stop signs. Many just ignore Trooper Roger Beaupre when he activates his cruiser’s flashing lights. Others panic and brake in the middle of an intersection.

Trooper Beaupre is tailing a drunken driver — Center City is full of them — but looks away for a moment. He broadsides a school bus.

Game over. Time to hit reset and put the police cruiser back on the outskirts of town.

Trooper Beaupre was sampling a $100,000 simulator that the Connecticut State Police recently introduced. The technology is law enforcement’s answer to the flight simulator, a decades-old tool designed to save lives.

Unlike the limited simulators used in driver-education courses, these hopped-up machines feel real, allowing officers to train for such white-knuckle tasks as high-speed pursuits without wearing down real cruisers.

Mimicking the feel of police cruisers, they can display more than 100 scenarios. They make turning in snow difficult, even replicate the afternoon glare on the windshield. Plasma screens and high-speed graphic cards allow passing cars to move from the driver’s-side window to the windshield view without distortion.

While few police departments can afford the machines in these times of budget crises, federal grants have enabled some purchases. About 150 of the nation’s more than 13,000 police departments have simulators.

Programmers at General Electric Driver Development say they even have replicated the dynamics of the pursuit immobilization technique — a dangerous chase maneuver in which an officer bumps a fleeing car hard enough to send it off the road, without losing control of the police cruiser.

Practicing the PIT on the street is risky and expensive. It requires a specially designed track and two cars that can be destroyed. Until GE’s latest simulator reached the market last month, replicating the maneuver’s many variables in a digital environment was impossible.

The technology incorporates vehicle-specific data, so different models of cars respond distinctively in different situations.

“Learning retention increases with a more real environment,” said Dave Dolan, a spokesman for General Electric, one of three major driving simulator manufacturers.

The results are measurable.

Philadelphia police officers were involved in 826 accidents in 1998. The next year they began training recruits on a simulator designed by Binghamton, N.Y.-based Doron Precision Systems. Last year, the department reported 655 accidents — a 21 percent drop in four years — Cpl. Jeff Sidorski said.

More than 1,000 Philadelphia officers have been trained in the simulators, and officers involved in multiple accidents are sent back for more training.

Mistakes made in the simulator can be reviewed and analyzed, and scenarios repeated. An entire academy class, even a whole department, can be placed behind the wheel in an identical situation.

Eighteen months ago, the Topeka, Kan., police department spent $95,000 in forfeiture money on a computer simulator to retrain officers who had shown poor driving habits.

“None of them is back,” said Sgt. Darin Scott, an instructor at Topeka’s police academy. “Before, we had officers we had to see a couple of times.”

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