Driving Simulator Reducing Bridgeport Police Crashes

Two years ago on Christmas Day, veteran Police Officer Roderick Doda and new Officer Eric Schnieder suffered head and neck injuries when their cruiser was rammed by a car involved in a chase.

It could have been a lot worse. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, in the past decade 434 police offices nationwide have been killed in automotive accidents, almost as many as the 549 who were shot.

Such are the risks of the often-dangerous job of patrolling streets from behind the wheel and speeding to crimes and emergencies.

And police-involved accidents can also put a hefty dent in the city’s wallet.

In 2013 and 2014, the city of Bridgeport, Conn., received motor-vehicle-related worker’s compensation claims totaling more than $800,000 just for the Police Department and just for accidents that occurred during that time frame.

Police Chief Joseph Gaudett is hoping a roughly $125,000 investment in a driving simulator can reduce those costs and the risks the men and women under his command face when on the road.

“If it helps prevent one serious accident that injures an officer or member of the community, then it is money well spent,” Gaudett said.

Gaudett broached the idea recently with members of the City Council’s Budget Committee, suggesting the equipment be shared with fire, public facilities and other city departments whose employees drive city vehicles.

Gaudett has been eying a model supplied by FAAC Inc. in Michigan that features a mockup of a police cruiser driver’s seat, dashboard and console, with screens to the front, right and left displaying roadway situations.

Some might picture public employees sitting in a glorified arcade game, spinning a fake steering wheel as they dodge digital pedestrians and oil drums on a little screen, racking up points.

But in fact, police recruits receive intensive driving training when they join the force. The problem, Gaudett said, is there are no refresher courses, unlike the regular recertification required in the use of other key tools of the job – firearms and stun guns.

Thomas Flaherty, administrator at the Connecticut Police Academy in Meriden, said he does not have the staff, equipment or the locations to do more than train recruits, so individual departments have begun investing in driving simulators.

“I think they’re a great tool,” Flaherty said.

The simulator would also, Gaudett said, be a natural extension of the “Arrive Alive” initiative Bridgeport’s department launched last May. Dispatchers several times per shift remind officers to buckle up and to check intersections when responding to emergencies.

Bridgeport Police Sgt. Chuck Paris, head of the city’s police union, said the simulator is a good idea.

“It’s true we do training in the academy when we first get on, and there isn’t any follow-up after that,” Paris said. “For firearms and other training, I think we have 60 hours every three years.”

But, Paris noted, in some cases it is the public, not the police, who are at fault, with civilians failing to heed warning lights and sirens and pulling out in front of cruisers.

“I wouldn’t agree the accidents are based on the officers not having the ability to drive,” Paris said. “But training’s good.”

It is a bit awkward for Gaudett to be pursuing the driving simulator at this time.

The day after he mentioned the idea to council members earlier this month, the chief appeared in court. He is being sued by a Bridgeport couple who claim that in 2010 Gaudett crashed his city-owned Cadillac Escalade into their car while he was on his cellphone.

Gaudett has testified it was the plaintiffs who actually hit him.