Last weekend I got to take a police cruiser for a spin. Literally. Fairfax County has a dedicated practice track and shooting range used for training cadets and re-certifying sworn officers. Saturday was CPA graduation day, but before the speech and the certificates and the handshake with the Chief of Police, we hit the driving track.
First up? “Hot laps” on the track with an officer-turned-driving instructor. Outfitted with a CHiPs-style helmet and my seatbelt, I rode shotgun in a cruiser while the driver went from zero to 80, and then slowed to 40mph or so for a turn complete with gravel to make the back tires skid.
We may not have been going top speed, but we were pulling Gs the whole way. Like a roller coaster without the drop. I wanted to raise my hands and yell. I couldn't stop smiling.
The purpose of the track is to help officers learn to drive safely while responding to a call at high speeds. Auto accidents are one of the leading causes of death for officers, and high-speed pursuits and call responses are one reason why.
- Keep hands at nine and three to avoid the “Timex tattoo” on your forehead and a broken wrist if your airbag deploys. The 9-and-3 hand position also allows for better control.
- Lock your doors. Unlocked doors are more likely to open during a crash, which can cause a driver or passenger to be partially ejected. One officer was killed when her door opened during a crash, she fell partially through it (restrained by her seatbelt), then the door slammed back on her head. 🙁
- Officers are taught to keep windows all (or mostly all) the way up, or all the way down. Sound odd? Picture this: Your window is halfway open, you get T-boned, your head snaps to the left into the top edge of the glass, which is now acting a lot like a blade. Not good.
Okay, now for the really, really fun part. The skid pan.
The skid pan is a slab of special, extra-slick asphalt that is constantly being doused by fire-hydrant-like sprays of water. Add a pair of slicks—smooth tires—on the back of the cruiser and you have all the ingredients for a spin.
During skid pan training, I got to drive. All by myself. The only link to the instructor was through the radio, over which he gave instructions and encouragement as I drove in circles around the wet pavement, trying to send the Crown Vic into a spin.
Turns out, I’m pretty good at recovering from a skid. Good to know considering the snow and ice we get here. I did manage to get in a couple of spins from which I couldn't recover. It’s fun when you’re not staring down a speeding semi on the freeway!
- If you skid, turn into it, meaning turn the wheel in the direction the back of the car is moving.
- If you feel the car slipping stay off the gas and the brake.
- If you have a teenaged driver, and live in Northern Virginia (Fairfax County residency not required), consider signing him or her up for the youthful driver course. Or check for one in your area. They provide hands-on training about recovering from skids, dealing with changing road surfaces, and general driving safety geared toward common teen-driver issues.
After all the fun on the track, we got a quick tour of the shooting range. We were supposed to shoot, but will have to come back after renovations are complete. The facility includes a paper-target range, an outdoor range with knock-down targets where officers can practice shooting on the move, and a building where they can practice shooting at each other with simunition (basically paint balls). In the building space, they work on active shooter and hostage-type drills while instructors watch from a catwalk above.
Finally after a standing in drizzle, wearing a helmet several times, and getting drizzled on some more, I took my rat’s nest of a hairdo inside for a quick speech from the Chief of Police who then gave out certificates with a handshake and a smile for the camera. We chowed down on potluck food, and said our thank yous and goodbyes.
I learned a lot from the Citizens Police Academy. I was nothing but impressed with every FCPD officer, staffer, and volunteer I met during the 10-week course. They’re dedicated, friendly, helpful, and genuinely happy to get a chance to meet citizens who are interested in what they do and how they do it.
Gaining a better understanding of how the police department works—and getting a peek at all the cool toys—was great, but probably the best part was realizing that cops are people too. Everything they do is either for our safety or their own. Be respectful and they’ll return the favor.
If you have access to a Citizens Police Academy in your area, I highly recommend the experience.
To read more about my experiences in the FCPD CPA, click here.
Photo credits (skid pan and me in cruiser): Mort Berger.