But just in case, Investigator Matthew Savage replayed Little’s high-speed chase of an orange truck and his eventual crash — which all took place on a computer screen.
“Don’t let him bait you into a bad decision,” Savage said. “He’s making you head into that collision.”
Little was just one of several deputies who crashed and burned — and learned — in a driving simulator designed to help them hone their driving skills. The simulator covers everything from high-speed chases to emergency response and day-to-day patrol routines.
Little’s troubles began when he started chasing a truck he had spotted running a red light and striking another vehicle. Intent on catching up to the truck, Little didn’t realize the view out his right side window — or, more accurately, the monitor representing the view from his right side window — was obscured by tall bushes.
Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson, who was sitting comfortably on a couch behind Little during his unfortunate run-in, let out a laugh when red letters jumped out on the computer screen like an ending to a video game and spelled out “collision.”
It wasn’t the first accident he’d seen in the last week.
“We’ve had lots of wrecks,” Amerson said. “But they haven’t cost us anything.”
Well, not much, anyway. But $5,000, the cost to rent the computer simulation that mimics real-life driving situations for county deputies, is a lot less than a new patrol car.
“One rear-end at a red light would cost you that much,” Amerson said. “This is a good investment.”
Monday was the final day for training sessions for the county deputies who began using the equipment last week. The simulator, housed inside a parked RV outside the Sheriff’s Office, is designed to look and feel like the inside of the Ford Crown Victoria patrol cars used by sheriff’s deputies. Everything but the windshield wipers, Savage said, worked just like the real thing, including the air conditioning.
The view is just like a real patrol car too. Three monitors representing the windshield and two side windows, plus a video simulation of the rearview mirror, give the driver a 360-degree view of the computerized world of the simulation. City blocks, highways or country roads in daylight or night, rain or shine and any other weather scenario can be depicted.
It’s so real, deputies couldn’t help but get amped up during the high-stakes chase simulations, Savage said.
“People get excited when they get behind the wheel,” he said. “The guys are yelling at the TV, yelling at traffic, saying ‘get out of the way!’”
And that means the mistakes deputies make are all too real as well — exactly why the simulation is so important, Amerson said.
“As a department we drive more than a million miles a year,” Amerson said. “When people are behind the steering wheel for a million miles something is going to happen.”
In spite of all the time they spend in a patrol car, Savage said, driving instruction is rarely given to deputies. Instead, more focus is often given over to courses on proper gun use, which, while a necessity, doesn’t come up as often on a regular basis for patrolmen.
“They often do use firearms in the line of duty, but it’s a rarity,” Savage said. “But every day we get behind the wheel.”
The kind of chases shown in the simulation happen in the county almost every week, and the more accidents happen in a simulation as opposed to out on the real roads, the better.
“The more you wreck the better you are,” Savage said. “With the deputies and Type A personalities coming in, they never want to fail, but I tell them it’s good for them.”
“We’d rather it happen here then somewhere else,” Amerson added.
Most of the simulator’s scenarios are designed to lead a driver to failure, or “no-win situations” Savage said. The simulator is therefore not so much a test of how well a deputy can drive, but a test of how well he or she makes decisions on the fly.
That’s where Little went wrong when he ran the red light, Savage said. By that point, Little had been chasing the orange truck for several blocks — plenty of time to get the driver’s tag for a vehicle who had only committed a few minor traffic violations. In other words, there was no reason to put his safety, or the safety of the public, in jeopardy by continuing the chase into dangerous situations.
“In real life you have to make those kind of estimations all the time,” Savage said. “It’s a split-second thing.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star