After the cop pulled me over, he marched up to the window of my car, leaned over so I'd be sure to hear him, and barked loudly, "You're not trained to drive that fast!" Fact is, I am, and although I'd have liked to argue that 84 mph on a particularly straight section of 70-mph interstate requires very little skill, it was probably not a good time to contradict the stern fellow in blue.
But the experience left me wondering: What kind of driving instruction do cops get?
And that's how we wound up at the 42-acre Michigan State Police test facility near Lansing, Michigan, in one of its driving schools for cops. In addition to the entry-level program we attended, Advanced Precision Driving, Michigan's three full-time and 15 rotating instructors teach a three-day advanced course that focuses on pursuit driving, an upcoming class that teaches the PIT ("precision immobilization technique") spin-out maneuver, as well as a motorcycle driving school and a yearly test of all available police vehicles.
Built in 1989, this state-police facility has a 1.0-mile road course, a nine-acre handling pad, and a slippery, three-acre skid-control area. Every one of Michigan's 1100 state troopers must pass the week-long class we attended before getting his or her badge, but police from many jurisdictions also hone their skills here to supplement their initial driving test at a local academy. That was the case in our class, where experience among the eight cops ranged from a few months to a couple decades on the force. Few agencies have access to a multimillion-dollar test facility such as this, so lesser training academies are simply held in empty parking lots.
The class we attended was surprisingly casual -- not a uniform in sight. Ten of these classes are held each year, with a maximum of 12 students and a student-to-teacher ratio of 3:1 to ensure plenty of one-on-one training -- good luck finding a ratio like that at a racing school. And as Lt. David Halliday, the officer in charge, reminded us, "It's not a racing school," so going fast isn't the goal here -- it's safety. That's why the class is more than just high-speed maneuvers and 10 of the 40 hours are spent in the classroom, hearing some startling statistics and watching a couple of amusing how-not-to-drive video clips from actual police pursuits.
The driving exercises start with car-control basics and build on one another, and students must pass each segment before progressing to the next. The first few exercises are common to one-day defensive-driving classes for novices: a six-cone serpentine course; a "controlled braking" exercise that teaches brake modulation and requires students to change lanes around a row of cones while braking with the anti-lock disabled; and "evasive maneuvering," in which students drive directly toward a wall of cones until the instructor abruptly signals which direction to go around them. Students must then change lanes to the indicated side while navigating through another row of cones.
On day two we were introduced to the 95-cone monster the instructors lovingly refer to as "precision maneuvering," which is notable not only because it's one of the most difficult exercises of the week but the slowest as well. To pass, you must perform a sequence of forward and reverse moves through an intimidating seven-foot-wide lane of cones that stretches the length of a football field, as well as turn around in an 11-foot-wide box in the middle. Hit more than five cones, or exceed the two-minute, ten-second time limit, and you fail. Not surprisingly, this is a major stumbling block for participants, and we nearly lost a student to it during our week. Think it's hard to stay in your lane on the highway? Those are 12 feet wide; this one leaves less than five inches for error on either side of the Ford Crown Victoria cruisers we were piloting at the school.
In class, we learned how important this sort of training is due to the fact that Michigan's 660-police-vehicle fleet averages one crash a day, and a large percentage of those are low-speed, parking-lot-type maneuvers not high-speed chases. And half of those accidents happen while drivers are in reverse. This sort of precision behind the wheel would be a useful skill for everyone to possess, but we suspect at least 50 percent of licensed drivers don't have it.
As with any exercise throughout the week, if a student doesn't pass in the allotted window of time, he or she gets an additional hour of one-on-one practice with an instructor. Then the student is retested, and a second failure results in dismissal. For a recruit, that's the end of the road. An in-service officer's fate -- desk duty, perhaps? -- is determined by the home office, and he or she will likely be given another chance to pass this driving school. About one student per class, or almost 10 percent, doesn't make it.
Our next exercise was "skid control," using specially prepared cruisers with a second brake system that operates solely on the rear wheels; those brakes are activated via a switch controlled by the instructor in the passenger's seat and cause a skid. The pad is almost as slippery as ice -- it's water-covered Jennite sealant -- and brace yourself for oversteer, the word for sliding rear wheels. The goal is to catch the spin with quick and appropriate steering inputs.
This was not new for us, and we were hankering to get at the nine-turn, 1.0-mile road course, where high-speed pursuit-type driving is taught, despite the fact that we were piloting 4200-pound Crown Vics with truly wooden steering (the Mazda CX-7 SUV we were commuting in felt far more limber and is 300 pounds lighter). The state-police track has a little bit of everything: a 90-degree left-hander, an ess-turn section, a constant-radius sweeper, a high-speed kink, and a patience-required decreasing-radius curve.
This section started out with a classroom primer on the proper line of travel and apex locations for each turn, which may sound familiar. Here's the difference: There's a double-yellow line down the middle of the road course, as well as a white fog line along both edges, just as on public roads. The emphasis is to go quickly but safely, and we were instructed to use no more than 80 percent of the car's and the driver's ability, so there would be wiggle room when the unexpected happens. Using the road shoulder is fair game -- as it is in real pursuits -- but cross the center line or go off-road during the evaluation laps, and the driver is disqualified. We were somewhat surprised that not a single officer in the class had ever been to a road course, although turning laps using just half the roadway was a first for us, too. To pass the four-flying-lap exam, a student must hit 27 of the 36 apexes as well as keep lap times below 1:16.0 in the dry and 1:23.0 in the wet.
We got about two inches of rain on our evaluation day, and although many of the students were bummed, this driver, who is accustomed to track events being canceled for rain, was able to gain experience practicing high-speed cornering in very wet conditions. That was a good confidence boost and definitely more exciting, trying to avoid the water-filled ruts going into Turn Eight -- the high-speed kink -- and riding out some hydroplaning moments on the exit, hoping to kiss the center line and nothing more. The time target wasn't all that challenging, though, and we clicked off lap after lap about five seconds quicker than required.
The highlight of the class -- other than passing -- was the "night pursuit" exercise, which was made more interesting in our case by a slushy snowfall. With lights and sirens blazing, two students in two pursuit units attempted to chase an instructor piloting the "rabbit" vehicle, which ran madly in any direction it pleased. We couldn't get anywhere near the instructor, but even tougher was keeping up with communication over the police radio -- calling out every turn, constantly reporting the rabbit's location.
Then we rode along in the rabbit vehicle with instructor Sgt. Ron Gromak, and after quickly confusing the two students in pursuit, he did a 180-degree turn and buzzed them in reverse. At 40 or so mph -- still going backward -- he's pulling away from the two students when he says calmly: "You have to be real smooth in reverse." He's chuckling as he slows for an upcoming corner, apexes perfectly, and gets back on the gas. It must be his favorite part, we thought.
He later explained that more than once he's had a cocky recruit who thinks the time requirement around the road course is too difficult, so Gromak will turn a couple laps in less than the required time in reverse. That usually clears things up.
All of this just cemented what we had been thinking all week: that the Michigan State Police instructors are as accomplished behind the wheel as any high-performance driving instructor we've encountered elsewhere. What about the cops? Based on our week, we'd have to conclude that the average driving-school graduate probably has similar driving and car-control abilities to the average Michigan State Trooper.
But that still left one question: How would an off-duty police officer respond to an overly zealous cop who has pulled him over? One of the troopers, who naturally wishes to remain nameless, offered a real-life example when he once ended up on the other side of the law: "Are you gonna give me the lecture or the ticket, 'cause I don't need both?" Guess which one he got.
Not unlike Car and Driver, the Michigan State Police have been testing cars since the 1950s. Back then, they automatically purchased the lowest-priced cruiser on the market and tested its acceleration, top speed, and braking capabilities. But in 1974, the competing cruisers were just $4.45 apart, and the state wondered if the extra few bucks actually bought a better police car.
That dilemma caused Michigan's testing to evolve into an annual roundup of all available police-package vehicles. For 2007, 19 vehicles -- nine pursuit-ready vehicles, seven non-pursuit trucks and SUVs, and three motorcycles -- were tested in six categories over a three-day period.
The same instructors who run the driving schools are also in charge of this testing, one of the most highly regarded of these programs in the country (another renowned one is the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department). Head honcho Lt. David Halliday says some 30,000 copies of the resulting 120-page report (available online at www.michigan.gov/msp) are read by agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada, as well as faraway places like Guam and Australia, and claims the report directly affects $1.5 billion in police-car sales, a market of about 70,000 vehicles per year in the U.S.
Standing-start acceleration, top-speed, and braking-from-60-mph tests are performed at the 3850-acre Chrysler Group proving ground in Chelsea, Michigan. Ergonomics are judged by 10 officers in 28 categories; things like seat comfort, ease of entry and exit, and visibility. Vehicle dynamics are assessed by a four-driver average lap time around the challenging 2.0-mile Grattan Raceway in Belding, Michigan -- one of our favorite places to wring out cars.
The report doesn't choose an overall winner; each department can decide which tests are important. Among the pursuit vehicles this year, however, nearly every category was dominated by Dodge, with its mechanically similar Charger and Magnum.