TACOMA — The trooper was hot on the tail of a red car in a minutes-long pursuit when a truck made a U-turn in front of him and the two vehicles collided.
The truck driver got away as car parts flew into the air around the trooper.
Luckily, the crash was simulated.
The lesson was not.
Washington State Patrol trooper Chris Virant shook his head knowingly this week as his instructor reminded him to fight the reflex to veer left and instead keep the steering wheel straight to avoid the truck pulling out in front of him.
“The whole premise behind this is decision-making,” said Todd Bardaloc, who teaches the Emergency Vehicle Operation Course for the State Patrol. “It’s stuff we’d rather learn on a simulator than do out on the road.”
Virant is one of 125 troopers in Pierce and Thurston counties being tested on the simulator as part of the agency’s safe driving training. Everyone from Chief John Batiste down to troopers — 1,053 people statewide — must undergo the training every other year.
On the opposite year, troopers gather at their Shelton academy to train in patrol cars on the driving course.
“We want to constantly promote safe drivers among our troopers and this is a way to do it,” said trooper Guy Gill, a department spokesman.
The State Patrol bought the simulator in 2009 for $195,000. The price also includes the trailer that hauls the simulator around the state, a move officials said saves time and money by bringing the training to the troopers in their respective districts rather than paying to bring them all to the same spot.
The simulator spent the past three weeks at the State Patrol’s Tacoma office. It will leave Friday and head for District 8, which encompasses Clallam, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, Kitsap, Mason, Pacific, and Wahkiakum counties.
It resembles a video game with an adjustable seat and three 42-inch screen televisions. The creator made it lifelike with a seat belt, key ignition and switch to activate the car’s lights and siren.
Instructors set the same course for all troopers during the mandatory training but can create various scenarios.
They can make it day or night; add fog, snow or hail; make the driver impaired; or mess with the car, flattening a tire, locking its brakes or draining its fuel.
“It’s beneficial,” Virant said of the simulator. “It gives us a realistic feel when we get out in the real world.”
This year, troopers are given three onscreen scenarios: helping another trooper with a felony stop, following a trooper to a domestic violence call and a high-speed pursuit.
Though some troopers wreck their simulated cars, Bardaloc said failure isn’t an option. When troopers make an error, they discuss it and start the one-hour training over so troopers can practice and improve.
The key to doing well, several said, is to watch their speed.
Troopers going too fast won’t have enough time to react to things such as a truck pulling out in front of them or a car entering an intersection as a patrol car passes through.
Said instructor Paul Joyce: “The lesson a lot of troopers are learning is that faster speeds are not necessary.”