By Ellen Gerst
Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – Chattanooga police hope a new driving simulator device to be used for training will help lower patrol car maintenance costs and reduce the number of officer-involved crashes.
By 2022, the department spent more than $5 million maintaining patrol cars, according to data obtained through a public records request. It spent about $3.4 million on maintenance in 2021, data show, and just under $5 million in 2020. The police force has 616 cars in its fleet, most of them marked patrol cars.
Between 2020 and 2022, Chattanooga patrol cars were involved in 362 crashes, department data shows — 150 in 2022, 116 in 2021 and 96 in 2020. Thirty-two officers and civilians were injured in those crashes, according to the department. Most accidents involving patrol cars are minor, Assistant Chief Jerri Sutton said.
“The majority of accidents happen while we’re on our way to calls for service,” Sutton said during an interview at the department last week.
The new L3Harris PatrolSim simulator, which cost the department $130,700, is made of a driver’s seat that faces a dashboard, steering wheel and laptop computer in front of a panel of monitors. The interior is a near replica of the inside of patrol cars that Chattanooga officers use every day, Lt. David Young said during a recent media briefing.
The simulator can also replicate other vehicles, including ambulances and armored SWAT trucks, allowing officers to begin training on them before actually getting behind the wheel of one, Young said.
“But obviously we’re most concerned about the things we run on a daily basis,” training officer Ryan Lynn said at the briefing.
Training officers sit outside the simulator room and control everything from road conditions and other drivers displayed on the screens to the car’s brakes and air conditioning.
The department plans to use the unit for routine training for new and existing officers and to conduct remedial training for officers who get into accidents or have other problems with their driving, Young said.
The simulator provides a report after training sessions that identifies the driver’s mistakes and ways to improve.
“And maybe they’ll adjust how they drive on the streets,” Young said. “We’re just trying to reduce the amount of accidents we have in a controlled environment before they get into the real world.”
Patrol cars in Chattanooga have also been outfitted with new gear that can help reduce accidents en route to calls, Sutton said.
New external sirens, low-frequency rumblers and light beams were installed on top of all patrol cars starting in November, according to Sutton. The new gear should make responding officers more audible and visible to other drivers, Sutton said.
“We weren’t as visible by the SUVs out there and so the light bar has helped in that sense,” she said.
Rumblers can be heard better than loud sirens over traffic and other sounds, Sutton said.
Patrol cars, which have had blue emergency lights for decades, also added red lights to make them easier to see at all times of day and for people with color blindness, said Sue Poole, the department’s fleet and facilities manager.
“We’ve noticed our cross collisions have gone down since we’ve had the sound go out, up and around us, and the lights have helped with that,” Poole said.
The department plans to study how the new equipment affects accidents and evaluate their performance after a year of use, Poole said.
A patrol car is typically in service for about eight years before being rotated out, according to Poole. The department uses a formula that includes mileage, purchase price and cumulative maintenance costs to decide when to take a car off the streets, Poole said.
While most police car maintenance is done at the city garage, Poole said cars are sometimes sent out for more serious collision repairs, equipment and repairs that are covered by warranties.
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