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Souped-up simulators give police training off road

MERIDEN, Conn. — The drivers in "Center City" are idiots.

They cross double yellow lines, ride curbs and run stop signs. Many ignore trooper Roger Beaupre when he activates his cruiser's flashing lights. Others panic and brake in the middle of intersections.

Beaupre is tailing one of the city's many drunken drivers when he looks away for a moment. He broadsides a school bus.

Game over. Time to hit reset.

The $100,000 simulator that Beaupre sampled — one of two recently unveiled by Connecticut State Police — is law enforcement's answer to the flight simulator, a decades-old tech tool designed to save lives.

Unlike the limited simulators used in driver-education courses, these hopped-up machines feel real, allowing officers to train for such white-knuckle tasks as high-speed pursuits without wearing down real cruisers.

Mimicking the feel of police cruisers, they can display more than 100 scenarios. They make turning in snow difficult, even replicate the afternoon glare on the windshield. Plasma screens and high-speed graphic cards allow passing cars to move from the driver's-side window to the windshield view without distortion.

The technology is so advanced, programmers at General Electric Driver Development say they have replicated the dynamics of a dangerous chase maneuver in which an officer bumps a fleeing car hard enough to send it off the road, without losing control of the police cruiser.

Practicing the maneuver on the street is not only risky, but expensive. It requires a specially designed track and two cars that can be destroyed. Until recently, replicating the maneuver's many variables in a digital environment was impossible.

Only about 150 of the nation's more than 13,000 police departments have simulators. Few can afford the machines in these times of budget crisis, although federal grants have enabled some purchases.

GE's latest simulator, which hit the market last month, incorporates vehicle-specific data, so different models of cars respond distinctively.

"Learning retention increases with a more real environment," said Dave Dolan, a spokesman for General Electric, one of three major driving simulator manufacturers.

GE has contracts with nearly 40 police departments, and Binghamton, N.Y.-based Doron Precision Systems says it has more than 100 simulators in police departments worldwide. FAAC Inc., a longtime military supplier of combat simulators based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has simulators in fewer than a dozen departments.

Police say the technology may catch on as younger officers — raised on video games and home computers — join the force and take over training.

Some departments who use simulators say the investment has paid off.

Philadelphia police officers were involved in 826 accidents in 1998. The next year they began training recruits on a Doron simulator. Last year, there were 655 accidents — a 21 percent drop in four years — according to Cpl. Jeff Sidorski.

Eighteen months ago the Topeka, Kan., police department spent $95,000 in forfeiture money on a computer simulator to retrain officers who had shown poor driving habits.

"None of them are back," said Sgt. Darin Scott, an instructor at Topeka's police academy. "Before, we had officers we had to see a couple of times."