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California POST: Taking driver training into the next decade

Every so often, the next big thing really is big, in part because it also gets back to the basics

Time and time again, we in the law enforcement profession are told about “the next best thing” for policing. It may be the newest, greatest technology or the latest leadership trend. I’ve been around just long enough to figure out that these ideas or trends usually don’t last and it always comes back to traditional police work.

There is nothing wrong with a focus on the basics. We all came to this profession to throw bad guys in jail and take care of the helpless in our society. It likely won’t get you on the national speaking circuit but the basics of policing do work and they are successful.

Every so often, the next big thing really is big, in part because it also gets back to the basics.

California POST VOTAC
The latest idea in emergency vehicle operations training is the California POST Vehicle Operations Training Advisory Council (VOTAC). The focus of the committee’s work is to respond to the POST Objective to “enhance and continue the study of driver training methods and vehicle-related high-risk activities to improve training, enhance safety, and reduce preventable collisions and injuries.”

Formed in March 2008, VOTAC reviewed a 124-page preliminary report prepared by the California POST Staff that focused on the study of traffic collisions involving law enforcement vehicles. The State of California not only requires ongoing driver training but they had exhaustive records on the individual driving records of peace officers in their state — as well as the training records of those officers.

Multiple researchers were brought in to look at this data in an effort to begin a process of best practices and standards for law enforcement driver training.

The early consensus from the committee was that training should emphasize “sound judgment within a realistic context.” Some examples included:

• Officers that drive at night should be trained at night
• High speed training should be given if the officer is likely to drive at high speeds on duty
• Interference vehicles should be utilized in training to simulate the real work environment

Additional concerns came up within the discussions, including whether agencies are requiring the wearing of seat belts, safety of vehicle equipment installment, the lengths of officers’ shifts, and how fatigue factored in as a causal factor in collision rates.

While the initial findings were impressive and have begun to shape the training programs throughout the country, the team that POST has assembled to develop these and future recommendations is just as impressive. It serves as a “who’s who” in the field of training including instructors such as Los Angeles County Sgt. Dave Hontz, Michigan State Police Lt. Doc Halliday, Dr. Geoff Alpert, and many others in the profession and representing various organizations.

The work of VOTAC is not merely the latest fad or trend. It has the potential to shape driver training for decades to come. This work that the State of California has undertaken can save lives and reduce injury in our profession. It is groundbreaking and their initial efforts were published earlier in 2009.

The Problem
The report quickly identifies the national trend of vehicle collisions being the leading cause of death and injury to law enforcement but what is glaring in the initial research conducted is that the State of California is encountering officer-involved fatalities in vehicle incidents at a “significantly higher” rate than the national average.

The State is also encountering a higher rate of vehicle related injuries to their officers. The report points out that while the population of California’s peace officers grew at a rate of one percent per year from 1990-2007, injury collisions grew at a rate of 11 percent per year.

The Causes
The data analysis revealed that more than 7,100 injury collisions involving a peace officer occurred in California from 1997 to 2007. Three factors were the primary cause for the collision.

• Unsafe Speed led in all factors and was the cause of the officer involved collision 35 percent of the time
• Right Of Way was a distant second with being the primary cause 12 percent of the time
• Improper Turning was the primary cause 10 percent of the time

It was not a surprise that unsafe speed was the leading cause in officer-involved vehicle collisions. In fact, in the officer deaths from 1990-2004, unsafe speed was listed as the primary cause 83 percent of the time.

It bears repeating: unsafe speed was the primary cause of officer deaths in 83 percent of officer-involved vehicle collisions from 1990-2004.

Driving fast is no doubt a job requirement but another statistic should make us even more vigilant in safety. Just 55 percent of those officers killed in a high speed collision were actually responding to a call for service. Volume 1 of the VOTAC Report states: “This indicates that officers are driving fast when it may not be required. The implications are that there may be policy and agency culture issues.”

The “Boom!”
There it is. On page 36 of this 110 page report are the words that I believe will resonate to police leaders, trainers, and officers for the decade to come: “agency culture issues.”

After losing three officers to fatal collisions in 2009, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie gets it.

“Policy is just that: policy,” he says. “What we’re truly talking about here in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is a cultural change in our driving habits.”

Yes, it is about training and policy but unless the culture is changed nothing will truly be accomplished. I am convinced that VOTAC has the opportunity to impact the culture not only in the State of California but across the country. The committee is off to a good start but there is much work to be done.

The committee continues to meet and work is currently being done to develop a pilot study at several basic academies to assess the integration of driving simulation into the basic training. Case studies are being conducted to determine the common factors that play a part in preventable vehicle collisions and exhaustive interviews are being conducted with officers, supervisors and managers. Agencies that are having a low collision rate will be examined closely in order to identify what leads to success.

In his introduction to Volume 1 of the VOTAC Report, California POST Executive Director Paul Cappitelli summed up what I believe will occur through these efforts: “Together, I am confident that we will realize better and safer vehicle operations in the years ahead.”

I concur with Mr. Cappitelli. I am confident that VOTAC will bring real change to the law enforcement community in regards to driver training both in lower fatality rates and in the culture. VOTAC is about getting back to the basics — a safer environment for our Nation’s Finest.

To see Volume One of the VOTAC report, click here

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