When I was a field training officer, I’d routinely find an empty parked car somewhere in a parking lot for my new officers to use for practicing “mock” traffic stops. We trained on vehicle position, approach, tactical considerations, scripting and dialogue, spotlight placement, mock radio traffic and environmental considerations. The best part of these field exercises was that we didn’t need more than a parked car and some space—and it was free. We presented simple concepts that required regular practice to stay proficient, at minimal cost.
The challenge for driver training is that, despite its critical importance, it traditionally requires a lot of space, time and money. But you can do quality training cheaply, if you know how. Driver training, after all, is training the officer’s brain. Once the brain is attuned to safe practices, fewer reactive situations—precisely those that require advanced driver skills—will arise on the road.
So, while budgets are cramping departments in terms of vehicles and the cost to train, there are some exercises that zero-in on situational and mental awareness that any department can conduct in the confines of a local parking lot or even behind your station. They aren’t high-speed tactics, but they address the main culprits for mistakes in the field. Best of all, they can be done with less than 20 orange cones, at less than 20 mph and need only a few low-cost items to get started.
Although it’s recommended that you coordinate with and utilize your department’s EVOC instructor for this, the simple fact is many agencies don’t have one. I recommend against high-speed and dynamic training without an EVOC instructor. Since the following exercises focus more on the mental aspects of driving through low-speed situations, they pose little risk when properly supervised at a location free of obstructions, pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Of course, seatbelts should be employed. But you already knew that one, right?
All of these exercises can be completed in a few hours, and I’ve listed the exercise, objective, materials and procedures below for your reference. The exercises may seem simple in nature, but driving isn’t rocket science. It’s a brain exercise that happens to have four wheels and an engine attached to it. So, try out these exercises and I promise situational awareness will improve, which will hopefully lead to fewer crashes in the field.
Exercise #1: Visual Scanning
Problem: Tunnel vision and the lack of physically scanning the vision plane for information can lead to intersection and angle collisions.
Objective: Improving vision plane while moving.
Materials: Patrol vehicle, 20 cones, white vinyl numbers or letters and a tracking sheet.
Course Design: Construct a lane approximately 60 feet in width, with an equal number of cones on each side. The cones lining each side should be spaced approximately 30–40 feet apart. Affix vinyl numbers and letters to each cone so they face inward.
Exercise: Instruct the student to drive down the center of the lane at 20 mph or less. Ask them to call out numbers and letters as they drive. Record their responses on a simple tracking sheet. You can even have the cones on each side spell a word or a traffic law code to make it easier to track.
Desired Behavior: Based on the width and spacing, students will have to practice visual scanning and move their head from side to side to identify each cone and call out the letter or number. This clearly shows them that, by moving their head on a swivel, their visual “world” opens up and they gain new perspective on potential information that could be beneficial in preventing crashes.
Student Takeaway: If I turn my head and scan as I drive, I’ll improve my situational awareness, identify important information sooner and see more things that I might not have detected through peripheral vision alone.
Exercise #2: Visual Distance Window
Problem: Surprise events occurring in front of the driver due to employing a vision plane that’s too low—“driving off the hood of the car”—can lead to vehicle accidents.
Objective: Improving eye placement and raising visual plane.
Materials needed: 20 cones, one roll of brown butcher paper, one roll of masking or painters tape, two stopwatches, measuring tape and two patrol vehicles.
Course Design: Place 15 cones in a straight line, with each cone approximately 45 feet apart. Position a patrol vehicle at the far end of the slalom so that it’s far enough away to not be a hazard.
Exercise: Two runs will be performed. For lap one, the windshield will be unobstructed. For lap two, tape a 6" wide strip of butcher paper along the lower portion of the windshield, effectively shrinking the forward visual window by approximately 10–15%. Students should maintain a 9-3 position on the steering wheel and employ shuffle steering if necessary.
Parked Patrol Vehicle: Place someone in the parked patrol vehicle at the end of the slalom and give them a stopwatch. Instruct them to start the watch at the moment the student reaches the first cone in the slalom. Instruct them to activate the overhead lights exactly 10 seconds later. Use this procedure for both runs.
Slalom Vehicle: Instruct the student to enter the slalom at a speed they feel they can maneuver safely (should be 15–20 mph). Instruct the student to stop their vehicle as soon as they see the overhead lights activated on the parked patrol vehicle at the end of the slalom. Upon activation of the lights, time the student until they bring the vehicle to a stop. Exit the vehicle and measure the distance from the beginning of the slalom to the stopping point. Affix a 6" strip of butcher paper to the lower portion of the windshield for run two and repeat the exercise. Adjust the paper so that the bottom 10–15% of the windshield is obstructed.
Desired Behavior: The slalom assigns a physical and mental task to a visual task, creating the need for physiological resource allocation on the part of the driver. On lap one, the student will typically drive from cone to cone, focusing on the next cone to maneuver the slalom, which creates a “good” environment for “off the hood” driving behaviors many drivers employ. This also translates to long reaction times in recognizing the activated overhead lights of the vehicle located at the end of the slalom, as well as longer stopping distances.
Affixing the butcher paper to the bottom edge of the windshield for lap two will force the student to look further down the road. This will allow them to better locate the vehicle for each slalom cone, because they’ll be forced to look three to four cones down the slalom rather than one. It’ll give them a more global viewpoint on their driving environment and they’ll see the activated lights much quicker and stop sooner, even though the lights are activated at the same time for each run.
Student Takeaway: If I look farther down the road, I’ll see things sooner and be able to react better, thereby reducing or eliminating surprises that can hurt me.
Exercise #3: Backing Up Proficiency
Problem: Crashes while backing up at speeds of 5 mph or less typically account for more than 50% of in-service crashes.
Objective: Improving spatial awareness and vehicle placement while backing up.
Materials needed: 20 cones.
Course Design: Find some painted parking spaces and line the corners of every third space with cones, staggering them in an offset pattern down the aisle. This should give you approximately four to five coned parking spaces to work with.
Exercise: Instruct the student to enter the first coned space nose-in, then back out and continue to back into the next coned space on the opposite side of the aisle. From there, nose-in to the next space and so on, until all coned spaces in the exercises have been negotiated. Repeat as necessary.
Desired Behavior: I know this exercise sounds simplistic, but I assure you that in my 20-plus years of performance driver training in law enforcement, high-risk dignitary protection and defensive driver environments, backing up is the one area that almost every student has trouble with. This one area causes a lot of crashes, and yet is practiced very little. This simple exercise will improve awareness of vehicle size and maneuverability, demonstrate the relationship of steering angle and front-end swing when moving in reverse and show the effect of “rear-wheel cheat” when pulling into a parking space, which often results in a driver clipping another vehicle or a pole, building, etc. Ideally, the maneuver should be performed smoothly with maximum use of steering range and at speeds less than 5 mph.
And here’s one more thought, if your patrol car has a prisoner transport cage, make sure to do this exercise with a caged unit.
Tip: Unless the back window is blocked, don’t use mirrors when backing or switch between over-the-shoulder glances and the mirrors when moving backward. This completely screws up your visual reference points, and mirrors aren’t 1:1 on the passenger side. A better strategy is to plant your left leg solidly on the floorboard, get up high in your seat and look over your right shoulder. If need be, brace your right arm behind the passenger seat and steer with the left hand in a slow and controlled motion. If you need to check the nose of the car, stop first, look, reestablish your rear window viewpoint and continue. Don’t continue moving backward while looking forward. Trust me. I see this a lot!
Remember: The back of the car is attached to the front, so if you maintain a good and consistent visual plane out the back window, the front of the car will follow. This also means positioning the vehicle to the appropriate side when you enter the parking space.
Student Takeaway: If I address the issues of rear-wheel cheat and front-end swing through proper vehicle placement, maintain a consistent visual plane out the rear window and use the full range of my steering capabilities, I’ll be able to back up in the field with less chance of striking something.
So there you have it. Three exercises that require less than 20 cones, less than 20 mph, a little bit of space and are essentially free to practice. Driving is a perishable skill, and if we don’t practice it, we lose it. So, find some time to work on these mental processes that’ll help your physical moves, and you’ll drive your way toward a safer patrol environment.