DPS says it needs better road training
Bond proposal includes funds for facility that would replicate driving conditions
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — State Trooper Todd Dylan Holmes was just 29 when he died in the line of duty.
He wasn’t killed in a shootout or scuffling with a suspect.
Instead, his patrol car was struck broadside by an 18-wheeler when he tried to cross a highway to pursue another vehicle in East Texas near Marshall.
Holmes is the only Texas trooper to die so far this year in a work-related collision, but he’s far from the only one to run into trouble while driving.
Every year, Texas Department of Public Safety officers are involved in hundreds of collisions — 3,483 of them since 2001 — that claim lives, cause injuries and cost millions of dollars.
And the agency’s own statistics say 43 percent of them were preventable, meaning the officer failed to do everything he or she possibly could to prevent it. The numbers could grow, since data for the first half of this year is incomplete.
“Driving has been identified as one of the critical skills, just like the use of deadly force. We want to provide the best training in that area, obviously for public safety … (and) for the safety of our officers,” said DPS Training Academy Commander Albert Rodriguez.
But the department can’t do that on the borrowed spaces it uses, such as the parking lot at the Toney Burger Activity Center’s football field in Austin, he said.
That’s where Texas voters come in. Tucked into a bond proposal on the state ballot in November is money for a new training facility that would replicate conditions troopers face on the job, including high-speed chases, skids and off-road driving.
As pitched by DPS officials this year to lawmakers who agreed to put the item on the ballot, the proposed facility 43 miles from the agency’s Austin headquarters, on land the state already owns in the Florence area, would be “the No. 1 track in the nation.”
It is projected to cost $49.7 million, but its value is inestimable to Rodriguez, who believes it would better equip officers with the physical and psychological tools they need to drive safely.
“In our present situation, the first time that our police officers drive over 100 miles an hour is a real, true-life situation,” he said. “How do you learn about your limitations, or the vehicle’s limitations, if you’ve never been there? How do you know if you’re getting close to the limitations if you don’t know what the limitations are?”
Experience and adrenaline
For DPS highway patrol troopers, who collectively drive more than 56 million miles a year and make up 70 percent of the agency’s 3,377 commissioned officers, wrecks are a professional hazard, especially for less-experienced troopers.More than 60 percent of DPS wrecks have involved troopers who have been with the department for 10 years or less. More than 45 percent of DPS officers fit that experience level, and most of them are troopers.
Compounding the fresh experience of handling a vehicle at high speed is the effect of adrenaline on the body, Rodriguez said, with excitement causing an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and “perceptual narrowing,” or tunnel vision.
If officers can practice high speeds before they must accelerate to chase a lawbreaker, he said, familiarity will breed safety.
“It’s like anything else,” he said. “When you repeat a situation numerous times, it’s not as exciting.”
The number of registered vehicles in Texas increased nearly 15 percent from 2001 to 2006, to well above 20 million, and the number of collisions involving DPS officers has been increasing as well.
Collisions and wrecks have claimed the lives of six DPS personnel, including Holmes, and eight people who didn’t work for the agency, in the past 6 1/2 years.
To try to put a dent in the number of accidents, DPS officials borrowed ideas for the training facility from across the country and came up with some of their own.
It would include a highway response course to simulate rural driving conditions and permit high-speed pursuit training. It would have specialized areas to allow instruction on precision skills, skid prevention, control and recovery, urban and tactical driving and off-road driving on surfaces such as dirt, sand and gravel.
Widow stresses need
DPS officials believe it also could serve the training needs of local law enforcement agencies, several of which voiced support for its creation in a DVD prepared by the state agency for lawmakers. A DPS report last year said more than 78 percent of Texas police agencies that responded to a survey indicated they had inadequate driver training.Jennifer Miller — who was married to Trooper Kurt David Knapp when he died in 2004 at age 28 after a collision near Comfort in Kendall County — appeared on the DVD to urge creation of the training facility.
“When he lost his life, Kurt was trying to make our highways a little safer for all of the citizens of the state of Texas. His loss has had a devastating effect on me, our children, our family and friends,” Miller said.
Rodriguez knows firsthand how tough a trooper’s initial high-speed chase can be.His was in 1977, on I-35 between Devine and Laredo. He was a 24-year-old rookie and has since forgotten who he was after and why, but not the chase itself.
“I remember encountering my first curve over 100 miles an hour, and my partner said my knuckles were white. And he said, ‘You’d better move the steering wheel,’ because I locked in on that steering wheel and I wasn’t turning, and the curve was coming up on me real quick,” Rodriguez said.
“It’s amazing when you’ve never experienced it, how quickly certain things go past you or come up on you at certain speeds.”
Rodriguez said he could feel “my heart pounding out of my chest,” and when it was over, the senior trooper he was with “told me to stop the car and chewed me up one side, down the other.”
If Rodriguez hadn’t been able to negotiate the curve, he said, “We would have been at least seriously injured at that speed.”
After he became experienced in pursuits, Rodriguez said, it became second nature.
“I knew what to look for. But again, it was that time period that it took me to get there. … That’s where the danger point is.
“We want to get ’em there (with experience under their belt) before we put ’em out on the street. That’s where we want them to be, rather than having them get all this experience in real, true life,” Rodriguez said. “We want them to get it here, in a sterile educational-type setting, where we can control the outcome.”