Conyers Police Officer Scot McGinnis is in hot pursuit of a fleeing carjacker.
His cruiser's lights flash and siren blares. He carefully dodges careless civilians who run stop signs or dart into the road on bicycles. Suddenly, a car appears in his path, pulling in front of him from behind a parked van. The windshield shatters as the police cruiser slams into the car broadside.
Luckily, the scenario was just a game of sorts. The chase was not on the streets of Conyers. It happened inside an air-conditioned trailer parked behind City Hall, where officers are training on a virtual-reality driving simulator machine.
Like a race-car game in a video arcade, the device features a steering wheel, pedals and full dashboard - including a key in the ignition and working air-conditioning vents. Three video screens give realistic peripheral vision and feature virtual rear-view mirrors.
The simulator is provided for free by the Georgia Municipal Association to local governments that use its liability and workers comp insurance. The goal is give police officers, ambulance drivers and firefighters extra training in avoiding car crashes.
David Trotter of Local Government Risk Management Services, an ex-cop who operates the device, told the News that the training reduces insurance liability by improving public safety.
"The number one cause of death for law enforcement officers on duty is vehicle collisions," Trotter said on the morning of May 28, when the News was invited to observe McGinnis's training.
Trotter drives the trailer around Georgia, training various departments whose patches decorate the trailer's walls. He trained Rockdale County Sheriff's Office deputies in April. Then he pulled the trailer behind Conyers City Hall on May 1 to train city officers through June 5.
McGinnis told the News he already had extensive emergency driving training when he joined the force five years ago. He's already been in two high-speed pursuits of robbery suspects, one of them at speeds of nearly 110 m.p.h. on I-20. And his training "came in handy in the [recent] snowstorm," he said.
"I don't really know what to expect from this" specialized training, McGinnis said before the test. But he later mentioned he had a leg up: "I play a lot of video games," including "World of Warcraft."
Before driving the virtual car, however, Trotter gave McGinnis an exam on traffic laws and defensive driving techniques. McGinnis took an early classroom course on those.
When it was time to use the simulator, the first step was to buckle a real-life seat belt attached to the seat.
"You wear your seat belt in the patrol car, right?" Trotter asked with a skeptical tone.
McGinnis said he does, but the fact is, many officers don't follow that basic safety step. Trotter mentioned last week's death of a Franklin County sheriff's deputy in a crash that ejected him, possibly because he was not wearing a seat belt.
"I just trained that officer about a month ago," Trotter said. It's one of those times, he said, "You look back and say, ‘What could I have done differently, if anything?'"
Meanwhile, McGinnis turned the key and began driving in the virtual world. Trotter acted as backseat driver, sitting at a desk behind him and offering instructions and comments.
The graphics are about a decade behind today's video games. But, as this reporter discovered on his own test drive later, the effect is realistic enough. City streets are lined with buildings and working traffic signals, and other vehicles move with minds of their own. A combo of steering wheel tension and the way the virtual car moves gives a realistic sense of a big police cruiser's handling. Turn too fast, and the tires squeal.
With a push of a button, Trotter can adjust the size and handling to mimic an ambulance or fire engine, too. And he can choose from a large variety of emergency driving scenarios, all based on real-life incidents.
"This is collision avoidance. Anything in your path, as long as it's in motion, steer where it came from," Trotter advises McGinnis as he gets his first taste of cars pulling out in front of him. "Don't look at the conflict. Always focus on your escape route."
As the scenarios became more tense, with chases of car-loads of gunmen, Trotter and McGinnis exchanged some police-style jokes.
"Six-foot car, 12-foot lane. It'll fit, I promise you," Trotter cracked dryly when McGinnis bounced a virtual tire over the virtual curb while avoiding a crash.
"I'd be pulling that one over," McGinnis joked as one car made an especially stupid turn in front of him.
After the scenarios, Trotter replayed key moments to explain McGinnis's successes and mistakes. In that one big crash, his error was focusing only on the fleeing car and not on the surroundings.
"Don't get tunnel vision," Trotter said. He noted that a successful pursuit involves keeping the suspect in sight, not racing to stay on their bumper. That gives more reaction time and can keep pursuit speeds lower, making it safer for everyone. Too often, he said, "If they crash, you crash."
"He did really well," Trotter said when McGinnis's test was done. His one virtual crash is a gotcha moment that fools about 95 percent of test subjects, he said.
That moment, Trotter said, underlines the test's message: "You want to be sure you go home [safe] and no innocent person is hurt...and you want to get the bad guy."