Police academy: Learning how to drive | Mirror series

The smell of burnt rubber and well-used brakes lingered in the air as police vehicles breezed around a private track.

Police recruits, including Federal Way hopeful Carl VanDyke, spent April 8 learning how to drive like police officers.

The recruits' week-long training at the Washington State Patrol Academy in Shelton gave them access to 2.7 miles of track, where they learned and practiced controlling vehicles at high rates of speed, maneuvering around corners, avoiding sudden obstacles in the road and fitting into tight spaces, among other things. The training is necessary to prepare the recruits for situations they may encounter on the job.

Cops spend much of their time in their vehicles. It is not unusual to drive in excess of 100 miles in a day, Federal Way police spokesman Raymond Bunk said. Officers need to know how to drive in a way that makes catching criminals easier, but keeps themselves and other motorists safe.

"Shooting (is an option) you may never have to use in your entire career. But driving you use every day," he said.

The driving portion of the 19-week Basic Law Enforcement Academy, which police recruits must pass before officially joining a force, proves tricky for many recruits, said Cpl. Jason Blankers, Washington State Patrol lead driving instructor. The composed and confident 25-year-old VanDyke was no exception. The driving has been the most difficult part of the training, he said.

"Pretty much everything you've learned (about driving) so far goes out the window," Blankers said. "It's a completely different type of driving."

The open track

The recruits completed three exercises Wednesday. The brake box taught them to trust their vehicle's anti-lock brake system as an aid in steering around objects in the roadway. The low course taught them tricks to fitting in tight spaces and manipulating around closely-packed objects at slower speeds. The high course was a lesson in handling the vehicle at high speeds around corners.

High course

The object: Drive around sharp corners without putting the vehicle into a skid or spin, at speeds ranging from 40-80 mph. From a vehicle following the recruits, an instructor gave them advice over a radio on when to begin and end their turns, how to use acceleration and deceleration for tire grip and where to position their vehicles on the track around tight corners.

"Everything is coming at you quick," WSP Trooper George Pedro said.

The high course proved the most intimidating to VanDyke. After drifting his vehicle into the oncoming lane around one corner, he eased off the accelerator. During another lap around the course, Pedro urged the recruit to "pick it up" and "stay up on it." WSP Trooper Randy Gardner prodded VanDyke to go faster saying, "Come on. Let's go. Put your foot in it."

Relaxation is key

Despite the intensity of the driving, the recruits must refrain from letting their adrenaline get the best of them, Blankers said.

"If you're not a relaxed driver, you're not going to be successful out here," he said.

WSP Trooper Chris Cooper reminded the recruits that mastering their driving skills is important, but if they do not know their limits and injure themselves before arriving on scene, they are not doing anyone any good.

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