Sunday, July 20, 2003

Virtual drive lets police fail in safety

Highway simulator mimics car chases without real risk

By Matt Apuzzo
The Associated Press

MERIDEN, Conn. - The drivers in Center City are idiots. They cross double yellow lines, ride curbs and run stop signs.

Many just ignore Trooper Roger Beaupre when he activates his cruiser's flashing lights.

Others panic and brake in mid-intersection.

Beaupre is tailing a drunken driver - Center City is full of them - but looks away for a moment. He broadsides a school bus.

Game over.

Time to hit reset and put the police cruiser back on the outskirts of town.

The $100,000 simulator that Beaupre sampled, as the Connecticut State Police recently unveiled a pair, is law enforcement's answer to the flight simulator, a decades-old tech tool designed to save lives.

Unlike the limited simulators used in driver-education courses, these hopped-up machines feel real, allowing officers to train for such white-knuckle tasks as high-speed pursuits without wearing down real cruisers.

Mimicking the feel of police cruisers, they can display more than 100 scenarios.

They make turning in snow difficult, even replicate the afternoon glare on the windshield.

Plasma screens and high-speed graphic cards allow passing cars to move from the driver's-side window to the windshield view without pixillation or distortion.

While few police departments can afford the machines in these times of budget crisis, federal grants have enabled some purchases.

Only about 150 of the nation's more than 13,000 police departments have simulators.

The technology is so advanced, programmers at General Electric Driver Development say they have replicated the dynamics of the Pursuit Immobilization Technique - a dangerous chase maneuver in which an officer bumps a fleeing car hard enough to send it off the road, without losing control of the police cruiser.

Police believe the technology will be more likely to catch on as younger officers - raised on video games and home computers - join the force and take over training.

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