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Wash. Sheriff-Turned-Senator Hopes Driving Simulators Save Lives

Austin Jenkins

Police officers have long used computer simulators to practice when to shoot and when to hold their fire. Now, cops in Washington may have the chance to get behind the wheel of a high–tech driving simulator. It's a parting gift to law enforcement from a retiring state senator who was once a county sheriff. He fought for the funding in the memory of a young deputy.


There are critics of funding the police driving simulators. One capital budget writer is State Representative Hans Dunshee. He doesn't think it makes sense to use 20–year bonds to buy equipment that won't last that long. The Democrat is asking Governor Chris Gregoire to line–item veto the funding when she signs the capital budget bill.

Corporal Eric Ludlow of the Washington State Patrol is about to get into a high–speed chase.

Ludlow: "903 Academy. Just had a hit–and–run collision occur at the corner of 3rd and A street. Orange El Camino is fleeing the scene. I'll be in pursuit."

Ludlow calls the chase over the police radio as it winds through a residential area.

Ludlow: "Go ahead and start me additional units. Advise 258 that I'm in pursuit."

Real as this sounds, this is a virtual chase. Corporal Ludlow is sitting in a $100,000 driving simulator. Three large screens mimic the view a driver has out the windshield and side windows. As Ludlow tries to catch up to the fleeing vehicle, he has to react to all sorts of distractions and dangers.

Ludlow: "Vehicle just ran a stop light at E Street and 2nd avenue. There are pedestrians in the area."

The goal of the machine is not to teach driving skills, but instead judgment and decision making, like when to call off a pursuit because it's getting too dangerous. For the past year, the Washington State Patrol has used this simulator to train its cadets and recertify experienced troopers. Specifically the training has focused on reducing a common and potentially fatal error: not properly checking for oncoming traffic before proceeding through a red light with lights and sirens. Academy driving instructor Corporal Mark Lewis says getting behind the wheel is the single most dangerous thing cops do on a daily basis.

Lewis: "A lot of people think the dangerous part is the gun. You'll go through your whole career maybe never having to shoot it. But you have to get in and out of your car every single day. It is the biggest liability any law enforcement has."

The statistics bear that out. Last year, 125 police officers were killed nationwide. Fifty–six of them died in traffic–related accidents compared to 49 gun deaths. Closer to home, the Washington State Patrol has lost 26 troopers in the line of duty since the 1920s. All but six were killed in car or motorcycle accidents or struck outside their vehicles. Last year alone, Washington State Troopers were involved in more than 200 crashes. For State Senator Dale Brandland, a Republican from Bellingham, these statistics hide a terrible human toll.

Brandland: "This is a photo of Matt Herzog. And there's a rubbing here. It's got Matt's name."

Brandland sits in his Senate office holding a framed memorial display. Matt Herzog was one of Brandland's deputies when he was sheriff of Whatcom County, Washington. Herzog was killed in 2001 when the deputy he was training lost control and hit a tree during a high–speed pursuit. Herzog was just 27 years old.

Brandland: "I got to tell you I remember clearly sitting in my office and talking to Matt's mom and dad and it was tough, it was tough. And it was just a heartbreaking thing for them obviously, their whole family. But I'll just never forget that. It's just like rip your guts out."

That's why Brandland, who's retiring from the State Senate this year, made it one of his last causes to secure funding for more driving simulators. The legislature agreed despite a budget crisis and committed $600,000 in long–term bonds to pay for two simulators. The package also includes trailers and trucks to transport them around Washington specifically for use by local law enforcement. Brandland hopes the simulators help prevent another tragedy like the death of Deputy Matt Herzog.

Brandland: "I don't want families to go through that. And I don't want other administrators to have to go through that. I honesty do believe that we're going to save lives with these things."

Back at the Washington State Patrol academy, Cadet Todd Early takes the simulator for one last spin. He's just days away from taking to the highways in uniform. He recalls driving the simulator and getting t–boned in an intersection.

Early: "In real life, I would have been hit and my wife would have been getting a call that I was injured in a collision because he hit me. I think he was doing 60 mph or something when the car hit me in the intersection that I thought was clear. So we were able to back it up, re–look at the scenario and have me do it again."

Studies in California have shown a sharp reduction in crashes when officers train with simulators, especially if they go through a refresher course every two years. At the Washington State Patrol Academy, there's a sign that reads: "Through these gates pass the finest drivers in the world." Instructors here say that's even more true now that troopers and cadets are driving the simulator.

I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia.

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