After 23 years in the army, Joe Driscoll is ready to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a police officer.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” the 45-year-old said. “Now I get to have fun.”
Driscoll was one of 15 Peace Officers Training Academy students at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office training center who practiced evasive driving techniques last week. In week 15 of the 18-week class, the students whipped around a course in a beat-up Ford Crown Victoria to learn how to get out of tight spots and chase down criminals.
“We’re out here to teach them the physics of driving,” said senior training instructor Eric Snowberger. “It doesn’t matter what you drive. If you understand the physics of it, you can drive anything.”
The driving course at the training center has three sections, each designed to teach the students a different technique.
A large circular course was set up with cones made to simulate sharp turns and force students to slow down. The drivers follow the course in a big loop and into a section called “the light bulb,” a sharp U-turn. Then it’s into another curving section that dead-ends and the students have to back out, all the while weaving through cones.
The drivers must complete the course without hitting a cone, and with lights and sirens blaring, in less than four minutes.
Driscoll is so tall that his helmet hits the roof of the car, making it difficult for him to see while backing up, which is where he hit a cone.
“Most students complete it in two to three minutes,” Snowberger said. “It’s more about learning how to control your car while the sirens are going. Most students during the first try with the sirens get so pumped up, they forget to turn.”
Another section teaches the students to swerve and stop, as if someone stepped out in front of their vehicle. They start on a hill and have to reach either 35 or 55 mph, depending on which course they are driving. Then the instructor turns on a red light, and they have to make a last-minute swerve around a cone and stop before the light.
The last section involves maneuvering into and out of tight spots. In the case of accidents or small streets where fire trucks or ambulances might be taking up space, knowing how to back out of a tight spot and parallel park are key, Snowberger said.
The evasive driving part of the academy is not required by the state, Snowberger said, but he feels it is an important skill for new officers to have.
“You learn the limitations of the car,” he said. “It also helps with confidence in driving a police car. If a fellow officer needs help, the first instinct is to get there as fast as you can. You have to learn how quickly you can stop, and how tight you can turn in these cars.”
Nationwide, Snowberger said, more officers have been killed in motor vehicle accidents than anything else this year. He hopes the course will help his students avoid that fate.
“Getting to the scene alive is most important,” he said.