Driving Force

Do NY police officers get enough training to curb vehicle crashes?

Do NY police officers get enough training to curb vehicle crashes?

Emergency driving training makes up just 3% of an officer’s training time in NY, raising questions about whether that’s enough to curb crashes.

A joint investigation between the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Central Current and USA TODAY Network-New York.

A police car with two passengers drives forward between parallel lines of orange traffic cones. One cone is knocked over ahead of the oncoming vehicle.
Tina MacIntyre-Yee/Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
A cadet in the Southern Tier Law Enforcement Academy accelerates through this portion of the skills course at the National Soaring Museum in Elmira on Oct. 10, 2023.

The police cruiser’s high-performance Hemi engine roared down the open runway as it strained to hit 50 miles-per-hour within a few seconds — replicating the high-stakes urgency that’s vital in response to an emergency call.

Suddenly, the tires squealed, gripping asphalt as a police cadet hit the brakes and yanked the steering wheel for a 90-degree right turn. Underneath him, the Dodge Charger’s chassis shuddered, the vehicle pushed to its limit while leaving behind skid marks on a Southern Tier police academy’s driving course.

Then came the unmistakable crunch of a two-ton vehicle rolling over an orange traffic cone. A chorus of “Oh!” echoed from other cadets in neon yellow vests who lined the National Soaring Museum runway set up for the training.

Nearby, lead driving instructor Sgt. Andrew Hughson winced before nodding affirmatively: An inexperienced sheriff’s deputy had just made a driving mistake without endangering the public.

“That’s why we’re out here,” Hughson said, “because in the real world that cone is a kid on a bike, or a pedestrian, or another car. And they’ve got to learn how to avoid it.”

Speed, sudden stops and sharp turns are some of the skills police recruits have to master at Southern Tier Law Enforcement Academy in Elmira. Produced by Tina MacIntyre-Yee/Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

But thousands of law enforcement officers across New York should be getting more driver training to reduce police-involved crashes, based on findings of an investigation from the USA TODAY Network-New York and Syracuse University, with support from The Central Current.

Our early data analysis shows that from 2013 to 2022, law enforcement officials got into hundreds of collisions on New York roads, wrecking vehicles and injuring or killing civilians. Many of these wrecks resulted in little to no discipline for the officers involved.

Have you or a family member experienced a police-involved vehicle crash in New York? We want to hear from you. Fill out our online form here.

To understand the training gaps contributing to these findings, the USA TODAY Network-New York explored driver training in law enforcement by observing a skills test, interviewing instructors and surveying about three dozen police academies across New York.

Officers must complete about 700 total hours of basic training, of which just 3% is devoted to emergency driving training.

And it is an issue across the country, as police academies on average spend more time on their health and fitness training (50 hours) than on driver training (40 hours), federal data show.

Among the findings in New York:

· Police who train on driving simulators crash less, but many police academies in New York don’t have the digital training programs. The reason? Budget debates that ignore how reducing crashes saves more money than the technology costs.

· New York requires police get a minimum of 21 hours of driver training in the academy, falling well short of the national average of 40 hours. And experts say even 40 hours isn’t enough to prepare police for the demands of the job.

· State regulators recently conceded police need a lot more firearms training, doubling it to 80 hours. It stood in stark contrast to the driver training standards that have been stagnant since 2007.

· Not enough police departments require regular post-academy driver training and remedial emergency response training after crashes, despite federal research that showed both programs help curb costly and dangerous collisions.

Keeping calm at emergency speeds

Still, a small group of police academy cadets embodied the benefits of real-world training during a recent on-course driving test.

Frigid winds whipped across the hilltop runway outside Elmira as a line of police cars and SUVs took turns navigating the sea of orange traffic cones — both forward and in reverse.

In between test runs, cadets stood nearby overlooking the idyllic fall mosaic of vibrant reds and yellows dotting the hardscrabble towns along the New York-Pennsylvania border.

But cadets’ white knuckles on tightly grasped steering wheels and jittery feet on the sidelines betrayed the tension in the air.

One nervous cadet held her breath for much of the driving test, releasing a massive sigh after failing to complete the course in under two minutes and 20 seconds — the time limit for a passing mark. She would have other chances to pass, though, and an instructor gently reminded her that breathing helps with the adrenaline rush from driving fast.

“Sometimes all I do is flip on the siren once and they panic,” said Hughson, who has led the driver training since 2016. “But they’ve got to learn how to calm themselves.”

Two men in neon yellow reflective outerwear stand next to a line of three cars, two of which are visibly identifiable as sheriff's vehicles. In front of the men is an arrangement of orange traffic cones. One man appears to be checking his watch.
At the Southern Tier Law Enforcement Academy, Elmira Police Sgt. Andrew Hughson, getting ready to start his timer, tells the next cadet to start the course while officer Bryant Tranchant looks out at the course.

The concern for Hughson and other instructors, however, is that calmness and confidence typically come from getting plenty of training and experience.

The proficiency advantage was clear with Agnes Olson, a 23-year-old SUNY Cortland police officer who has a commercial driver’s license and took prior emergency driver training as a volunteer firefighter.

Just moments before her turn to drive, Olson told a reporter: “I think it’s going to be challenging.”

Then, she walked onto the course and expertly weaved her cruiser between the cones on a few runs — the first one a bit jerky with near misses of cones before she smoothed out later attempts. Upon return to the sidelines, she delivered the top time: 1 minute, 44 seconds.

Do simulators make a difference in police training?

The USA TODAY Network-New York surveyed driving training programs at dozens of police academies across New York, and found some programs ranged from 28 hours to 42 hours.

Of the 12 responses to the Network’s inquiry, just one academy in Orange County had a driving simulator. The academy recently bought the roughly $100,000 device with a grant and is using it mostly to offer post-academy driver training for local officers.

But authorities in other counties, including Westchester, Monroe, Broome, and Erie, offered various reasons for lacking a simulator.

Some academies stopped offering the training when aging simulators broke. Others never had the device. Several officials described challenges securing funds for simulators.

Academies in the Capital Region and Central New York did not respond to emails and calls about the matter.

An orange traffic cone drags underneath the back of an SUV reading,
A cadet hits a cone and drags it while driving the course in reverse at the Southern Tier Law Enforcement Academy in Elmira.

At the same time, insurance companies found driving simulators are well worth the investment. Training programs in Georgia that coupled simulators with on-course driving reduced officer crashes by 10%, insurers reported in that state.

Put differently, the technology provided at least a 12-to-1 return on investment by curbing vehicle repairs and insurance liability costs linked to crashes, according to the insurance study headed by Robert Hoyt, a risk management professor at the University of Georgia.

“Officers are being asked to operate vehicles at accelerated speeds and high-stress situations,” Hoyt said. But on-course and classroom training alone, he added, cannot prepare them for all the driving hazards.

“Much like they learned in the airline industry years ago; for the stuff that really can be devastating, you can’t really simulate for it without the digital training,” Hoyt said.

Guns versus cars

The gold safety standard in law enforcement are the departments that require annual or biennial on-course driver training for all officers. Some agencies also require supervisors ride along with rookies for months, or following all crashes, before letting them on the road alone.

But many departments, Hughson, said, fall short of these best practices.

“I would like to do more in-service driver training,” he added, “but there’s a training budget that is tough to change.”

Syracuse police, for example, had a training budget that covered some remedial driver safety course work from 2013 to 2020. The overall training budget, including many non-driving skills, accounted for 1% of the department’s roughly $45 million budget.

Then in 2021, the department boosted driver training to include annual emergency vehicle operator course training, following years of officer crashes that led to costly legal settlements, vehicle repairs and myriad injuries.

The stark contrast in training mandates for firearms and driving, in general, further underscored the priorities for local and state standards.

“We don’t shoot our guns all the time, but we have to get recertified,” Hughson said. “It should be the same for driving because it is serious, too.”

That seriousness also recently struck home for Hughson, who tried to relay the many driving risks to his newly licensed teenager.

Recalling the talk with his daughter, he said: “The car you’re driving is a missile going down the street, and you hope the person in the missile heading in the other direction is driving as safe as you.”

How did Las Vegas PD fix deadly driving problem?

It took three officers dying in crashes within a year for the Las Vegas city police department to rethink its driving policies in 2010.

But, in some ways, the third case forced the positive change: A rookie officer died in a crash while driving nearly 100 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone. At the time, he was off-duty and heading home, talking with his girlfriend on a cellphone, Hope Tiesman, a federal driving safety expert, recalled recently.

“For Vegas, its cops were going fast because they could and really turning it into a cultural thing,” Tiesman said, “motor vehicle safety wasn’t part of who they were.”

Then Vegas police leadership made driving safely a priority. It in part capped officers’ emergency response speed at 20 mph over the limit. It required annual driver training for new officers’ first three years and biennial after that. Safe driving stickers, posters and videos became ubiquitous.

Crashes and injuries among Vegas police plummeted 14% and 31%, respectively. Federal officials revealed those results in a 2019 report, launching a campaign to have other departments follow the model, said Tiesman, a research epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

But adoption has been slow, she added, in part due to the pandemic and the 2020 social justice movement that prioritized addressing other types of police misconduct over driving safety.

Some police agencies in New York, including in Westchester and Putnam counties, use a training program called Below 100, which aims to reduce line-of-duty deaths nationally to fewer than 100 per year, a level not seen since 1943, Kieran O’Leary, Westchester County Police spokesman, said in a statement. Some of that in-service training includes driving skills, he added.

Meanwhile, police-involved crashes nationally injured tens of thousands of civilians, while officer deaths linked to motor vehicles mounted.

The most recent data showing officer line-of-duty deaths between 2012-2022, excluding COVID-19 deaths, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, included:

· 1,811 total deaths

· 326 deaths due to vehicle crashes (18% of total)

· 166 deaths due to being struck by a vehicle (9% of total)

The rising cost of police crashes also gained attention when authorities this year revealed New York City settled nearly $247 million in New York Police Department crash claims from 2012 to 2021.

That is nearly 38% of the total claims involving the city’s fleet of thousands of vehicles. It stemmed, in part, from the police transition to using more SUVs, which caused more serious and deadly crashes while striking more bicyclists and pedestrians, the audit found.

But despite mounting evidence to the contrary, some police officers still view vehicle crashes as an unavoidable part of a job that requires lots of driving, with the added risks of occasional emergency responses.

The truth, Hughson said, is that crashes keep piling up due to flawed approaches to officer discipline and driving education.

“It really comes down to accountability and that retraining,” he said.

What’s your story?

Have you been hit by a police vehicle as a pedestrian, bicyclist or driver? Have you faced damage to your property in the aftermath of a police vehicle crash?

We want to hear your story and your questions that remain after the experience. Fill out our online form, or scan the QR code if you’re reading this story in print.

This investigation will continue into the early summer. You may be contacted by our reporters for further details about your experience as part of our continuing coverage of police vehicle crashes.

More from Driving Force

The heavy toll of NY police crashes: Syracuse police officers crashed their vehicles hundreds of times between 2013 and 2022, with some wrecks leaving civilians with lasting injuries.

Coming Monday: How this project was produced.

About the project

This story is part of Driving Force, a police accountability project meant to expose and document the prevalence of police vehicle accidents in New York.

This joint investigation between USA TODAY Network-New York and Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications was supported with funding from the Data-Driven Reporting Project. That project is funded by the Google News Initiative in partnership with Northwestern University-Medill.

This reporting was completed in partnership with Central Current, a Syracuse-based nonprofit newsroom.

Reporters, visual journalists, editors, designers and project partners include Maria Birnell, Evan Butow, Kayla Canne, Daniel DeLoach, Anna Ginelli, Jon Glass, Seth Harrison, Nausheen Husain, Hayden Kim, Annabella Leuzze, Chris Libonati, Beryl Lipton, Tina MacIntyre-Yee, Peter Pietrangelo, William Ramsey, David Robinson, Kyle Slagle, Eden Stratton, Sarah Taddeo and Jodi Upton and Marili Vaca.