By Julie Bisbee
BURNS FLAT, Okla. — Sirens blare, tires squeal and unsuspecting passengers brace themselves as trooper Jack Rhinehart takes a 90-degree turn after just a few pumps of his brakes.
The weight of the car shifts, the back end swerves out, the tires screech. Rhinehart remains calm. The back of his hands never move from his thighs, his fingers lightly on the wheel, as he steers the patrol car through a precision driving course that teaches state troopers from across the nation how to control their cars in turns at high speeds.
"I took it easy on you, that was pretty smooth," Rhinehart tells his passenger after finishing the course. Rhinehart, a trooper based in Ottawa and Craig counties, is an instructor at the Oklahoma Highway Patrol's Law Enforcement Drivers Training center in Burns Flat.
A top driving school The patrol's driving school is one of the top-ranked law enforcement training centers in the country. Year after year, it has made the short list for top driving schools, according to ratings done by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, said Joe Simpson, a trooper based in Oklahoma City who oversees the patrol's driver training program.
Troopers at the training program have taught others from all over, including Mississippi and Texas. The center was picked by the U.S. Border Patrol a few years ago to help agents learn how to drive sport utility vehicles and pickups off-road conditions after the agency saw an increase in rollover accidents.
This week, patrol driving instructors are teaching Texas troopers the finer points of precision driving. Several classes of veteran and new Texas troopers are sent through a driving course in Oklahoma each year.
"I've been a trooper for 30 years, and this school is a cut above," said Don Johnson, a retired Texas trooper and an instructor with the Texas Highway Patrol Division's driving school in Austin.
Relaxion is key Being relaxed at high speeds is key to driving. Troopers spend most of their working hours on the road. The more comfortable they are with the hazards, the safer they are on the road.
"We always say smooth is fast," Simpson said. "A lot of it is just confidence. Some of these guys have never truly been at high speeds."
When Simpson says high speeds, he means speeds at over 100 mph, speeds a trooper might not ever reach unless they are in a high-speed pursuit. It's the job of training officers to make sure the troopers are prepared, confident and relaxed when it comes to driving at speeds that make most grab a handrail.
The only thing that gets troopers to that point is practice, practice, practice. This week, Texas troopers are driving courses that include a 10-mile, high-speed chase course through the expanse of land that surrounds the Oklahoma Spaceport, or what used to be Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base.
Orange cones are set up on the wide runways once used by the military. Trainees are chasing a "rabbit" car driven by an instructor - a seasoned pro on the course. The student driver in the "dog" car is expected to keep up with the instructor, as if it were a chase. Close, but not too close.
The technique During a short driving course with tight turns, troopers are discouraged from using the brakes. Instead they are to let centrifugal force guide through the trajectory.
There are only a few places in the course where seasoned drivers use their brakes. A few taps on the brakes before a 90-degree turn are all the drivers should need. When the wheels squeal, that's just the car shifting its weight, said trooper Rick Wallace, who works with students at the driving course.
To right themselves out of turn, trainees are told to do something that defies driving logic - let go of the steering wheel.
"If the car starts to get out of control, release the steering wheel," Rhinehart said. "It's the toughest thing to teach people. It's not natural to do, but the car is meant to go straight, and it will straighten itself out."
Right now, Oklahoma trains troopers from other states for free. Troopers bring their own cars and pay for gas and food.
"In my opinion," Rhinehart said, "it's saving our lives and saving yours. There's a big difference between driving really fast and driving fast and being in control."
One of the benefits the patrol's driving school has is it takes advantage of something the Burns Flat area has plenty of - wide open spaces. With extra room, troopers are able to run a long chase course that takes them from paved roads to dirt roads at high speeds.
Officials credit Dale Beaty with the success of the driving school. Beaty, who retired last August after 38 years with the patrol, took cues from race car and stunt car drivers and applied them to law enforcement.
"We're pretty proud of it," he said. "It's nice that we can share something with the other states."
How to drive 'trooper' style:
Position your hands at 8 o'clock and 4 o'clock on the steering wheel. The lower grip and shuffle steering keeps your arms from getting tense and fatigued and allows quicker reaction time. The driving position also could prevent injuries if the driver has to make quick maneuvers. His hands could hit the windshield or knock his glasses off.
Always walk around the vehicle before getting in to make sure there are no hazards in the way. This could prevent accidents, such as running over bikes or small children who may be behind the car.
Back into parking spaces — Law officers don't back into spaces for quick departure but to avoid hazards. Most accidents happen when people are backing up, so it's better to back into spaces.
Always check your tire pressure — This is crucial in making sure tires grip the road and handle the heat from the road. Low tire pressure could cause a tire to come apart.
When going through an intersection, always cover the brake — The less time it takes to put on the brakes if a hazard gets in the roadway, the less likely a collision.
Source: Oklahoma Highway Patrol
Copyright 2007 The Oklahoman
Okla. police's training focuses on high-speed chases