You might have encountered this situation before: you’re driving along on a wet rainy day. Suddenly, the car in front stops, and as you swerve to avoid a collision, the steering wheel stops responding like it used to and the tires feel like they’re floating out from under you, and the car skids toward a median. What do you do?
For the 11 students of DeKalb Technical College’s Law Enforcement Academy’s inaugural class, this is exactly the situation they’ve been trained to handle.
For the past several weeks, they’ve been practicing driving through dangerous conditions on a Skid Car – a regular car outfitted with a system of hydraulic outer wheels that can simulate a skid situation by lifting or lowering the car and increasing or decreasing the car’s contact with the road.
In a skid situation, explained Instructor Lt. Harry McCann, less of the tire is in contact with the road, giving the driver less control of the car. The trick is to straighten out the car and regain that tire contact.
The Academy is one of only a handful of agencies in Georgia to have the Skid Car system, which cost $65,000, said Academy instructor Beverly Thomas.
"When I first heard about it I was not that excited about the way it sounded," Thomas admits. "After taking an instructor class with it, and using it a lot, I’m amazed and I think it’s a great piece of equipment."
The Academy students gain a competitive edge by training with this system and the additional hours Emergency Vehicle Operations Course training – most courses typically require 24 hours of training but DeKalb requires 80, said Thomas.
Previously, training academies had simply flooded large stretches of pavement with water so that the cars would actually hydroplane.
"This is safer," said Thomas, of the Skid Car. "We have almost instant recovery. If we see that you’re about to run into something, or there’s any other dangerous situation, (the instructor) pushes the red button and you’re safe again. You don’t have that with the more traditional way they’ve been doing them."
The safety of officers and civilians on the road is also a big motivation in giving students the extra behind-the-wheel training.
"Driving is where we lose most of our officers," Thomas pointed out. Typically, the number of those of us that get shot is very small compared to those of us who die in a driving accident. We feel like driving skills are important. "
Student Samantha Rose said she felt like she benefited from the training in her regular life as well. "I feel like I drive my own personal vehicle better now," said Rose. "You learn how to control the car. You don’t let the car control you."
Student William Presley said that even though he had raced vehicles at dirt tracks before, the training was very useful to him. "A lot of stuff they taught us was different," he said. "How to handle roads in different conditions and overall being more safe as a driver."
And then there’s the undeniable thrill of being able to burn rubber safely. "If nothing else it’s a great stress reliever," she said, smiling. With that, she stepped into the Skid Car, and with a screech of the wheels, went around for another spin.