Whidbey cops speed, crash in virtual chases

Oak Harbor Police Officer Dennis Dickinson tries out a state-owned driving simulator that’s supposed to help officers become better drivers. - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor Police Officer Dennis Dickinson tries out a state-owned driving simulator that’s supposed to help officers become better drivers.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

Cops from all over Whidbey Island and one newspaper reporter got the chance to chase bad guys, speed through city streets and even crash police cars last month.

The state loaned a high-tech driving simulator to law enforcement officials in Island County. The simulator, which is similar to a giant video game inside a trailer, is meant to help train officers handle a variety of high-stress or dangerous situations.

“The Washington State Patrol reports that they have experienced a 20 percent reduction in collisions since implementing a driving training program that utilizes a driving simulator as part of the training program,” reported Sgt. Rick Norrie, a traffic enforcement expert at the Island County Sheriff’s Office.

Lt. John Dyer with the Oak Harbor Police Department stressed that the training session was a cooperative effort of law enforcement agencies on the island, including the sheriff’s office, the Oak Harbor police, the Coupeville Marshal’s Office and the Langley police.

Dyer said he hopes to organize more such cooperative efforts among police agencies on the island because of budget pressures facing everyone.

“We’re looking at anything we can do to reduce the costs to all of us but still get the training we need,” he said.

Among the training sessions that police officers regularly have to complete are emergency vehicle operation courses, which officers refer to as EVOC. Dyer said it can be expensive for departments to put on the courses because of overtime and the wear and tear on cars.

The simulator training came without cost because officers went through training while on duty and no real cars were involved. Dyer said the simulator training is a supplement to the regular EVOC training.

Oak Harbor Police Officer Dennis Dickinson was one of the trainers who led other officers through simulations. The “car” is designed to be as similar to a real cop car as possible, with video screens instead of a windshield and side windows. The dashboard display can even change to mimic any number of cars, including Crown Vics.

Dickinson said the officers are supposed to follow their departments’ policy regarding police chases. As a trainer, he can jump into the scenario as another police car, a bad guy or even a fence.

In one scenario, the police car is driving on the highway when thick fog suddenly descends. The driver has to slow down and be attentive or risk  plowing into an accident up ahead, or possibly veering onto the shoulder and rolling.

One problem with the simulator, Dickinson said, is that some people get nauseous. But he heard that more advanced versions of the simulator have solved the problem.

Dickinson said one of the best things about the simulator is a camera that videotapes the driver in action. He said watching the playback has already helped officers identify some things they weren’t aware they were doing.

“We all pick up bad habits over the years,” he said. “This kind of feedback can be really helpful.”


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