Winter driving not a stunt |

Winter driving not a stunt

by Timothy Bowman

The El Dorado Sheriff’s Department would differ with anyone who says a game of cops and robbers is only for kids.

On Feb. 15 the department brushed up on its deputies’ driving skills with some serious play on the tarmac at Lake Tahoe Airport.

“We are required a couple of times a year to go over the driving section of our manual,” said Sheriff’s Deputy and driving instructor David Allen. “(Emergency driving) is the thickest part of our manual. It is 17 pages thick. We go ahead and try to refine what (the officers) already know.”

The exercises were carried out on a four segment course designed to allow officers to feel and respond accordingly to weight shifts in the vehicle at different speeds. Deputies in pursuit cars chase a rabbit car which is driven by an instructor. The instructors follow no specific route in navigating the course which is covered with snow and ice to simulate winter conditions. Reaching speeds of up to 50 mph, the instructors take the pursuit cars for quite a ride.

“The (pursuing officers) have fun with this, too,” said Robert Hight, Sheriff’s deputy and driving instructor. “A real pursuit is dangerous and it is tough. With this they just come out and drive and they are learning something too. We have some surprises for the (officers) while we are out there and we see how long it takes them to figure out what we are doing.”

While the training is conducted in a controlled atmosphere, it is not devoid of all danger.

“We have had crashes in training before but this is what we do every day,” Allen said. “Driving shouldn’t just be a means to an end. It is a perishable skill. If you don’t practice it you won’t be as good as you would be. Bad things can happen in a short amount of time and that is what we are trying to impress on these guys.”

The Sheriff’s Department takes the training seriously because officials said they realize they are entrusted with public confidence that they will be able to carry out a pursuit in a safe and effective manner.

“If we are the ones out there writing tickets, we should be the best drivers out there,” Allen said. “We should be doing it better than everyone else.”

Before the driving exercises start, the officers gather for a briefing to review safety aspects of driving in a police pursuit. Officers are instructed on everything from steering wheel hand positioning to when it is safe to pass other cars during a pursuit.

“We have a lot of video we watch that we have from TV,” Allen said. “A lot of it is showing what you shouldn’t do. What we want to stress more than anything is that safety is paramount to training.”

Officers are instructed to keep in mind that in a real pursuit, the safety of the public can be very easily compromised.

“(Officers must ask,) ‘Is it worth risking the safety of the public to get the bad guy,’ ” Allen said. “Especially if the bad guy can be identified later. It is not our business to endanger public lives.”

A key ingredient to a safe and successful pursuit, according to Hight, is situational awareness.

“You get into a pursuit and you focus too much,” Hight said. “(Officers) tend to get tunnel vision, so we try to get the guys to pay attention to everything that is going on.”

Awareness is particularly important in winter pursuits, as ice and snow can create unpredictable conditions.

(The training course) is a lot like the roads. There is ice in some areas and snow in some areas,” Allen said. “We hope for the best.”

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