Where car chases are par for the course

Center prepares police for high-speed pursuit

March 21, 2000|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

Siren wailing, lights flashing, the police cruiser blindly crested a hill, and Deputy Keith Warner, as part of a skills test, slid the vehicle left, careened right, whipped left again.

Warner's ability to drive in mock pursuit of fleeing suspects without panicking or losing control was under scrutiny, a test that demanded he drive an obstacle course in six minutes or less. Knock down five traffic cones, you fail the test -- and the course.

The cruiser was a rapidly moving classroom at the Maryland Police and Corrections Driver Training Center in Sykesville, where 2,400 law enforcement officers have practiced pursuits as though they were driving in crowded cities and on highways.

On this day, Cpl. Ira Click, a state police driving instructor, was in the front passenger seat, as Warner, a Harford County sheriff's deputy, hit the slick asphalt skid pad at 30 mph. The steering turned to mush, and Warner put Click's lessons -- "Steer. Don't brake." -- to immediate use.

The training, it was hoped, would save Warner during a real-life pursuit.

Warner and his 13 classmates were instructors-in-training, the officers who will help the permanent staff teach others at the Carroll County center. Unlike police officers in television dramas, they ran no red lights, performed no acrobatics. They did not try to drive across collapsing bridges or under burning trucks. Driving with precision at moderate speed through a highway course, the skid pad, and a course imitating an urban grid seemed hard enough.

Driving on the grid, they turned at the instructor's whim. They called out the colors of signs posted on the cross streets, which indicated whether they were attentive to traffic. The highway cones left less room for maneuvering than the lane markers of a typical street. The students carried the burdens of professional pride, and of knowing that fellow officers were watching.

"The pressure," said Warner, a deputy with 14 years experience, "was unbelievable."

He passed.

"If we teach nothing more than safety -- the driving skills police officers need in the field -- we've accomplished our mission," said Al Liebno, administrator of the center.

The cars have roll bars and mesh window screens, and the drivers are required to wear helmets. In the two years that the center has been operating, two students have had serious accidents and about 40 have had minor ones, the worst injuries a broken leg, and bruises from deployed air bags.

The training, which is available to the more than 25,000 law enforcement officers across the state, seems to have had the intended effect. According to State Highway Administration figures, police vehicles in 1994 were involved in 1,576 accidents. Last year, the number through Nov. 15 was 1,263. The projected 12-month total of 1,339 was 5 percent below the average for the previous five years.

Liebno and his staff are refining the course, and instructor Steve Lurz described his vision of the skills test of the future:

A trainee would race through the urban grid course after dark, radio for other cars to converge near one of the buildings on the course, confront "suspects" at a traffic stop, fire blanks, and pursue the "suspects" on foot. The bad guys would run to a waiting getaway car, and the officers would pursue, drive back to the firing range, and fire at a target.

"Now that," said Lurz, "is what I call a great training exercise."

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