D. O. "Spike" Helmick is the retired Commisioner of the California Highway Patrol

Spike Helmick, Retired CHP Commissioner

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Driver education has changed since we were children. Many public schools no longer offer driver education or driver training.

Driver Training - Teaching CHP cadets how to drive

Welcome to the California Highway Patrols Emergency Vehicle Operation The facility, staffed by 6 CHP officers and one sergeant,is responsible for training CHP Cadets in a host of driving maneuvers. EVOC training was started in 1958, although the current facility was not in place at that time - it was constructed in 1977.

Training was much more limited at its’ inception but has grown over the years to include such skills as vehicle placement, skid control (i.e. the “skidpan”), high speed driving, defensive driving, pursuit and mobilization technique (or “Pit” maneuvers) and night Code 3. Of all the driving skills, skidpan proves to be one of the most elusive to trainees.

Looking at the skidpan, it doesn’t appear overly intimidating. Its a very short looped driving course about one tenth of a mile long with 6 turns, including a very tight (S) turn. It is a polished, concrete track with curbing. But here’s where it gets tricky. While in use, the entire course is flooded with about half an inch of water. The main purpose of the exercise is to introduce a controlled skid so that trainees can learn appropriate maneuvers to maintain control of the vehicle in a skid situation. Water is used to introduce the skid at a low rate of speed so trainees can practice in a relatively controlled environment. Skidpan builds the foundation for several other driving skills, including the high speed driving techniques taught later in the Academy curriculum. The goal for each Cadet is to demonstrate the ability to take the vehicle through the entire course without losing control of the vehicle. Executed successfully, it takes only about 23 seconds to maneuver its entirety.

In her briefing session with 4 cadets, the instructor discusses driving skills like they are a science. She has a chart of the skidpan course up on the wall and talks the cadets through each turn of a single lap. She uses terms like over steer, counter steer, throttle modulation, centrifugal force. All of the cadets nod their heads as she speaks. they all know what she’s talking about, at least in theory.“

The trick is to be able to translate that theory into practice on the course,” one instructor says. “As instructors, we can talk until we’re blue in the face but when it comes right down to it, these cadets need to be bale to translate what I’ve told them to their driving skills. Our job, as instructors, is to get creative with those cadets who have a little more of a difficult time so that the light will finally come on and they say, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ That’s our goal.”

The four cadets head out to the training vehicles. Four instructors are each assigned to one of the cadets. Their job is to instruct their respective cadets as they drive through the span and to determine if they’re successfully executing the course. At one point, an instructor watches as his student rounds a corner in a skid and sends the vehicle into a full spin. He lowers his head for a moment. “Do you feel my pain?” He asks, smiling. “This is probably one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve had with the CHP/ But it can be frustrating when you’re having a hard time getting through to someone.”

The Sergeant, who supervises the EVOC instructors, explains the process for evaluating cadets.

“We have very specific skills we’re looking for in cadets during each phase of our training process. We have evaluation sheets that cover objects such as steering control, breaking, lateral weight control, eye placement and a whole host of other skills. But in some respects, it comes down to the judgment of our instructors. With skidpan in particular, they have to be confident that the cadet really gets it, because he could be the same instructor who ends up in the car with that cadet on our high speed course at 90 mph. And you can bet the instructor wants to be certain that trainee knows how to keep control of a car in a skid at that speed.”

The CHP’s high speed driving course is one-of-a-kind in the state of California. Most other driving training facilities in California, including other law enforcement academies, have a top speed of 65 miles per hour on their courses, but the CHP EVOC doesn't have that restriction. Because the very nature of the duties performed by CHP officers inevitably include pursuits and high speed driving, the CHP Academy trains very heavily in this area. In fact, the CHP estimates that each cadet gets about 15 hours of actual drive time behind the wheel of a car while at the Academy. And that doesn’t include countless hours of classroom instruction they receive in driving or time in the passenger seat with an instructor driving.

“With such high training speeds, obviously safety is a big issue out here,” says another instructor. “We’re attempting to teach the necessary skills in a very sterile, controlled environment so that if these future officers ever encounter a situation in real life while out patrolling the roadways, they can react appropriately and keep from panicking. Because, obviously, the consequences of an accident are a lot more serious in the real world where other vehicles could potentially be involved.”

Safety measures include several items. For one, the vehicles are also maintained by a team of four mechanics employed by the Highway Patrol. These vehicles are also equipped with a roll cage, 5-point safety belts and an intercom system for the cadet and instructor to communicate. EVOC instructors conduct a cursory inspection of the vehicles’ tires and wheels every single time they enter and exit a vehicle. The high speed track has an observation tower, which is always occupied when any vehicles are out on the course. Only four vehicles can be out on the 1.75 mile course at any given time. The tower observer has radio contact with every vehicle on the track and can monitor their placement on the track in case they get to close to each other. In addition, a fire truck is always waiting at the foot of the tower, so that the if the tower observer witnesses an accident, he can respond to it within a few brief minutes. And finally, the tower observer also has radio contact with other Academy personnel so that if a staff EMT is needed, one can be called to the scene immediately. However, such precautions are usually all for nothing.

In order to safely teach the cadets high speed skills, the instructors ease the cadets into it. On a cadet’s first time out, the instructor takes him or her on about four or five “demo” laps in which the instructor drives, talking his way through the entire course.

“As you approach turn three, keep the car high and smoothly work the car down the apex,” The Training Officer tells his cadet. He continues this ongoing narrative through each lap he drives. After the demo laps are completed, the instructor pulls into the bypass lane of the course and the cadet and instructor trade seats.

“On the first lap, we let the student start at lower speeds. We talk them through everything. But as they complete the track once, and then twice, we talk less and less to allow the student to get the feel of the car and the road. And we have them take the car up to higher speeds with each lap.”

Once an instructor is comfortable that a student can navigate the track efficiently, she instructs the student to pull into the bypass lane and gets out of the vehicle. Then she heads up to the observation tower and watches the student from that vantage point. She observes the cadet for at least 15 - 20 minutes, allowing them to circle the course 15, sometimes 20 times.

“From the tower, the instructors are watching for roadway position and smooth vehicle control while the cadet navigates the course solo,” says the Sargent. “But the acid test is this. After they drive it alone for awhile, we have the observer call their car into the bypass lane. And the instructor gets back into the car with them and tells them to take the course again, but this time in the opposite direction. It becomes a whole new course at that point. The turns are different, the inclines are different.

Law Enforcement Sites

The Official CHP WebSite

The CHP 11-99 Foundation was created to provide benefits to California Highway Patrol employees and their families

The California Association of Highway Patrolmen (CAHP) is a labor association whose primary purpose is to work for the benefit of all California Highway Patrol officers.

Other Sites

Mothers Against Drunk Driving