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Back to Archives | Back to November 2006 Contents 

Washington State Patrol Biannual Driver Qualification Program

By Fred Fakkema, Captain and Academy Commander, Washington State Patrol, Olympia, Washington

he highest liability issue facing most police departments is police officers’ driving skills. More property damage, injuries, and even deaths occur each year from law enforcement–related traffic collisions than from any other policing action.

Operating an emergency vehicle, whether during normal driving conditions or in emergency situations, demands all of an officer’s skills and attention, even though the driver must be able to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, both mentally and physically, while driving. One of the more important factors in safe police vehicle operation is prior experience, whether during training or actual road time, enabling the trooper to adapt and apply the learned skills and successfully complete the driving mission.

A critical factor is a particular vehicle’s limitations and specifications. Different vehicles can do different things best. For example, executive sedans are not built for high speeds or rough handling over bumpy terrain. Four-wheel-drive vehicles do not handle like high-speed pursuit vehicles. Although fleets contain different vehicles, officers must train on the vehicles they drive.

Equipment placement in the cabin area also affects the driver’s ability. All the equipment—radios, mobile data or laptop terminals, light bar controls, videomonitoring equipment, and other tools—influence the amount of physical space available to officers during driving. This restriction in turn affects the driver’s ability to turn and twist while driving. Addon equipment must be properly placed to enable the officer to use it, but the equipment must not interfere with the driving operation.

Police departments commonly train new officers in driving techniques and then do not require recertification unless the officer needs to go back to driver school. Most agencies require more frequent training involving firearms and other belt weapons. A routine weapon qualification is the norm in law enforcement, but a routine driving qualification standard is not. Once an officer is deemed an adequate driver, should he or she be retested?

Discussions about mandatory driving qualifications routinely result in consistent stopping points: the cost for travel and administration, time needed to conduct qualifications, and limitations of facility and vehicle acquisition. After these points are resolved, questions still remain:

• What happens to those officers who do not qualify?

• What happens if tenured officers or agency leaders fail, since their last driving qualification was possibly decades ago?

The Washington State Patrol Academy
The academy is fortunate to have a physical driving facility that includes a 2.7-mile state-of-the-art drive course designed and engineered to challenge the best drivers, an emergency operations course, a skill course, and a skid recovery pan. Part of the driving course is specifically designed with changing radius curves, reverse super-elevation in curves, and dramatic variances in the general layout for testing all vehicle operators.

Ongoing Qualification Standards
The Washington State Patrol’s new biannual driving qualification program will use the same course and standards that new trooper basic training program use. The requalified troopers will be using their issued patrol vehicles so they can maintain their skills in the vehicle they use every day. To resolve the difference in patrol vehicle loading versus the academy’s track cars, an extra five seconds are added to the qualification time. However, officers qualifying with their issued patrol vehicle must still meet the department’s zero-error standard.

The qualification occurs in two phases: a skill course (slow-speed backing and maneuvering through tightly spaced cones) and an emergency course (high-speed lane changes and obstacle-avoidance drills). Both qualification phases are timed, so officers must use the correct technique in order to succeed.

Of course, the biannual driving qualification does not replace judgment-based driving training. The past two annual in-service training sessions have focused on judgment and decision making. Officers are forced to make real-time decisions on a direction and an action to take when faced with obstacles and conditions.

Driving training will continue to be a core component of annual in-service training but will alternate years with qualification driving (skill sets) and decision-based driving (skills application). Agencies with driving simulators can provide decision-based training without setting up elaborate scenarios and increasing instructors’ already heavy load.

Before starting this biannual qualification, the Washington State Patrol had to address the time and financial issues. One consideration was the cost of a potential lawsuit: this alone demonstrated a clear need for some way to assess troopers’ driving skills. Through the biannual qualification program, the agency demonstrates a good-faith effort to ensure that officers possess the skills necessary to safely operate a patrol vehicle.

Next was the issue of whether officers were physically able to pass a driving qualification. Some employees questioned some officers’ ability to twist and turn quickly enough to pass the timed skill part of the course.

Training staff responded that if an officer was so physically impaired that he or she was unable to turn to look behind the vehicle, what was he or she doing working in full-duty status that might involve a physically demanding situation at any time? This retort quieted the challengers immediately.

Physical limitations will be addressed in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. An employee must be able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation, and without direct threat to the safety of self or others.

Last was officers’ ability to pass a driving qualification many years after their initial training, especially when accounting for diminishing precision driving skills. To test the standard’s feasibility, a crosssection of officers of different sizes, ranks, ages, tenures, and genders was selected for a trial run. They underwent the same training and tests with the exact requirements and practice time allotted for the 2007 driving qualifications. This cross-section validated that the requirements are appropriate and attainable. All officers in the test group, from trooper to captain, were able to pass the driving qualification.

During the 2007 qualification, those students who fail will be retrained immediately after class or the next day and then retested. If they fail again, they will be restricted from driving a pursuit vehicle until they receive further training and pass the tests.

Officers who are unable to pass the driving qualification will face the same restrictions as if they were unable to qualify with their service weapon: restricted duty, potential administrative assignments, and reassessment regarding their ability to perform their job.

The academy is particularly interested in how the driving qualification standard will affect future officer performance. On one hand, a standardized requirement will demonstrate that the agency is committed to ensuring a competent workforce; on the other hand, the instructors have expressed concern that a minimum skill set standard does not necessarily translate into improved judgment and decision making in the field. The patrol’s training division will closely monitor driving performance as it relates to officer-involved collisions in the field, as well as overall driving performance during in-service training.

Instructors Instructing
How much time is spent teaching driving instructors how to help their students learn? Instructor development classes tend to focus on presentation skills, facilitation, variations of instruction models, and lesson plan development—all essential skills, to be sure. Police academies ensure their instructors are excellent in their area of expertise: they attend training, even advanced schools. How do academies raise the bar for law enforcement driving instructors and teach them to recognize and correct student errors and bad habits? Some courses already include diagnostic elements, but what about driving?

The emergency vehicle operators course (EVOC) instructors have attended many driving courses and created networks with other driving instructors across the nation. They noted the schools’ focus on making them better drivers, rather than making them better at helping students drive better. Doubtless, instructors need to be excellent drivers to be able to demonstrate techniques and establish credibility with their students, but EVOC instructors also need to diagnose what students are doing wrong and develop a wide variety of instructional techniques to help students succeed.

The agency’s EVOC instructor basic course originally adapted the basic driving course given to all officers. The instructor course covered driving in more detail, and student instructors were encouraged to meet higher standards of driving. But little else prepared them for actual instruction. All that changed this year.

The revised EVOC instructor basic course classroom portion covers the basic vehicle dynamics and driving techniques to give the instructors a selection of teaching points to use. Like other training academies, the driving program uses slide-show presentations for visual appeal, as well as photographs to depict vehicles in varying dynamics. The instructor also provides relevant dialogue, appropriate analogies, and descriptive language so the students can easily digest and retain the information.

EVOC instructor basic students apply their newfound knowledge immediately by reporting to the gates of the drive course. EVOC instructors follow behind or ride with student instructors, and continuously reinforce information. During the drive, student instructors are either being taught a technique, observing a technique, or teaching a technique.

EVOC instructors follow each student instructor through the course, observing and coaching throughout, demonstrating what to look for in the vehicle’s attitude, and distinguishing between correct or incorrect techniques. When incorrect techniques are identified, student instructors explore possible causes to correct problems immediately.

By observing the vehicle’s motion or angle, student instructors learn to recognize potential causes: they may determine that the driver is clenching the steering wheel, has an incorrect hand position, or is looking at the front of the vehicle rather than further down the road.

Student instructors also learn multiple ways to correct based on their observations and interactions with the other students. With the ability to read the student techniques, the instructors can relay immediate corrections via radio. This instructional method not only makes instant corrections possible, it also helps reinforce the correct techniques.

Sometimes a more in-depth analysis is required. Even after recognizing an incorrect technique, the student may have difficulty putting the solution into action. For example, a recent student had difficulty with high-speed driving, resulting in jerky movements and flattened cones. The instructor determined the student was tense.

After trying a couple of relaxation techniques, the instructor asked if the student whether he played sports in school. The student, surprised, responded he had indeed been involved in many sports. The instructor asked about baseball, one of the student’s favorites, and asked whether hitters improved their swing by tightening their grip on the bat? The student replied, no, that he did the opposite and loosened his grip for an optimum swing. The student immediately recognized the parallel.

The revised EVOC instructor basic course changed focus. Instructors now funnel their efforts into diagnosing student technique problems and determining the most effective way to correct the problems. In addition, the new instructors learn a variety of techniques to use with students to determine what learning style works best for each individual.

Measuring Success
With judgment-based training, some type of objective, authentic assessment is essential and many educators are using rubrics1 for this assessment. There is a tendency, however, to remove rubrics from the student evaluation process because they are cumbersome to develop and sometimes unsuitable to the particular type of training. Some agencies are already scrapping rubrics and reverting to checklists or other assessment tools.

One of the final driving exercises for recruits is a simulated nighttime pursuit. The scenario can be changed to another form of pursuit to another type of emergency run. The student faces an extraordinary situation: the running vehicle was just used in an officer-involved shooting at a nearby convenience store.

As the student pursues this vehicle, carefully choreographed interference vehicles perform those actions that in real life have resulted in collisions and near-misses: drivers failing to yield to emergency vehicles, failing to obey traffic laws, and apparently being oblivious to events around them. Interference vehicles are initially concealed by darkness, simulating the line-of-sight limitations found with buildings and other obstructions.

Thirteen exercises are built into the scenario to test the student’s judgment and decision-making skills. The student must demonstrate awareness of other traffic, with a pass-fail standard involving officer safety and collision avoidance.

A second scale addresses the student’s effectiveness as a pursuer: Were the decisions made in a timely manner? Did the driver use good driving techniques?

The rubrics incorporating the two concurrent scales are appropriate for these exercises. Traditional rubrics often have a cumulative score. By using dual scales, the student is still required to pass the critical elements yet still gets essential feedback on less-critical, but still important, elements.

Each exercise is created with the dualscoring system on a page that describes the evaluation criteria. The 13 pages are summarized at the end for a raw score, with other elements such as radio procedures added in for a final score. The pass-fail elements are graded separately and independently. A student can receive a fairly high score for driving techniques and procedures but fail a component of the exercise by demonstrating judgment that endangers officer safety or the public or could result in a collision.

For example, in exercise 4, the running vehicle has passed an interference vehicle on a two-lane narrow roadway and turned right at an intersection, running through a stop sign onto the main road. The interference vehicle remains ahead of the student on the two-lane roadway, failing to yield to emergency equipment.

The student has several options:

• If the student speeds by the interference vehicle into the intersection without clearing it, a second interference vehicle appears (turns headlights on) from the left. This option would be considered a failure because of failing to avoid a collision and disregarding officer safety.

• If the student stops behind the first interference vehicle and fails to take action, he or she sits there, stalemated, while the running vehicle gets out of sight. The student does not necessarily fail, as he or she is avoiding a collision, but is not effective in this situation.

• If the student pauses behind the first interference vehicle to give the driver an opportunity to yield, carefully clears the ongoing lane, clears traffic at the stop sign, and reengages in the pursuit, the student has made excellent choices in the critical areas of collision avoidance and officer safety and is more effective based on the level of assertiveness.

The most important part of the training is the driving instructor’s detailed debriefing session with the student. Using diagrams, rubrics, and footage from a dash-mounted camera, the student and instructor review the pursuit and discuss the actions taken.

The debriefer instigates discussion about potential options, and they explore what may work better or worse in that situation. The debriefer takes extra time to inquire about the student’s observations at each point in the exercises.

Some students demonstrate significant tunnel vision and are oblivious to the actions of the interference vehicles. The debriefer relates the exercises to real-life incidents, giving the student a well-rounded view of how these exercises can apply to a variety of situations. Students leave the debriefing session with a better understanding of their own limitations, additional options to consider, and how the techniques will apply in the future.

The Washington State Patrol encourages the training division to be creative; the biannual driver qualification program is just one example. As they can anywhere, limitations of time, budget, and staffing can slow progress. Ideas flow, but implementation is, at times, daunting, uneven, and incremental.

The journey of the risk-taking innovator can be lonely. If no other peer agency is trying these ideas, are they wrong? Are the ideas forward thinking, or are the new ideas completely unsuitable?

The Washington State Patrol training division must determine whether the benefit is worth the risk. The alternative is to step back and wait for someone else to go first. The Washington State Patrol training division is poised to move forward, albeit one step at a time.

1A rubric is a working scoring guide evaluating a learner’s performance and is based on the sum of a full range of criteria rather than a single numerical score. The rubric is usually developed before the assignment begins, often with the learner’s participation, in order to get the student to think about the criteria according to which their work is judged. Rubrics simulate real-life activities engaging real-life problems and are a formative assessment as a part of the ongoing teaching and learning process. Rubrics can be created in a variety of forms and levels of complexity, but common features exist in all rubrics. All rubrics focus on measuring a stated objective, identify the range of performance being rated, and contain specific performance characteristics indicating the degree to which a standard has been met.

Exercise 4 Table



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 11, November 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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