According to figures from the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, 2,475 collisions involving on-duty officers in 2011. Those resulted in 386 Georgians getting injured in those crashes, and three wound up dead.
The most notable of the wrecks killed the wife of Atlanta Braves Trainer Jeff Porter one block from the state Capitol on New Year's Eve. The officer involved, Trooper First Class Donald Crozier, got fired, but records released to the media show he had been in 20 crashes in his patrol car in his 10 years with the Georgia State Patrol, seven of them determined to be his fault directly.
The new effort involves classroom time, online simulation and realistic challenges in a mock-up trainer the way pilots learn and hone their skills. The Georgia Department of Public Safety is working with the Georgia Sheriff's Association which has purchased two trainers that will begin operations early next month for a course developed by the Georgia Public Safety Training Center.
Every trooper will undergo the program and, starting in South Central Georgia, as many as 10,000 law-enforcement officers and local first-responders will be trained each year. The first 1,000 students went through the initial segment in Perry already.
"I think it's safe to say, the more we can train on operating emergency vehicles the better," said Terry Norris, executive director of the Sherriff's Association. "It's just an underlying need to drill into deputy sheriffs and troopers the need for safety."
This is not the first effort to increase safety.
About two decades ago, the law-enforcement community nationally began to address the number of crashes associated with high-speed pursuits. Agencies began changing their policies to allow officers to break off pursuits if continuation would endanger the public more than allowing a suspect to escape.
"When I started patrolling in the 1970s, you would pursue until the wheels fell off," said Frank Rotondo, executive director, Georgia Chiefs of Police.
After changing the policies, agencies then stepped up their training of recruits and refreshers for veterans to ensure they understood the new approach.
"Like firearms training, you can give them a proficiency rating, but you have to tell them when and when not to use the weapon," Rotondo said.
Bystander injuries tripled last year in chases
The State Patrol reports that troopers broke off 13 percent of the 464 pursuits last year. In those chases, 393 vehicles were damaged because nearly half of the pursuits resulted in crashes, even though the average only lasted about 5 minutes over 5 miles.
Last year's pursuits brought four deaths, all of them classified as the "violator." Still, seven officers, 29 bystanders and 73 other violators were injured. Ironically, half of all pursuits were over a misdemeanor.
Clearly, the high-speed chase policies aren't foolproof since last year's bystander injuries represented a steep spike of 322 percent over the previous year and nearly twice the six-year average.
In the heat of a chase, officers tend to concentrate so much on the objective of catching a bad guy that they don't pay enough attention to other safety factors, according to Col. Mark McDonough, the commissioner of public safety. To force troopers to think about other aspects of what they're doing, the State Patrol teaches "commentary driving" in which the officer comments aloud about conditions, speed, traffic, civilians and other roadway factors.
"You get so focused on it," he said. "That's part of what that commentary driving is, to take someone from the 50 yard line, so to speak, and put them up in the coaching booth."
Mandatory, four-hour refresher courses each year hammer home those skills. And supervisors review every pursuit, watching the dashboard camera's video and listening to a recording of the radio conversation as a way to reinforce the training.
Stepped up training on routine responses
As dangerous as high-speed pursuits may be, they aren't nearly as frequent as officers, ambulances and fire trucks responding to routine calls.
"They are doing it for a law-enforcement objective, not just going for lunch," Rotondo said. "They recognize the urgency, and they want to get there to help people. That tends to overshadow other things. ... That's what they live for."
Experts say most of the collisions happen when first responders speed through intersections. While the law permits them to exceed the speed limit and run red lights and stop signs, it doesn't prevent other, law-abiding drivers from being in the way. In essence, they must request permission from the other drivers to proceed, and lights and sirens merely make that request for them.
"Distraction is a problem in so many crashes," said Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety. "Today's cars are much more soundproof than earlier models.When you add high-wattage sound systems,the chance of hearing a siren is diminished. If not the music system, a driver may be on the phone, talking with passengers or otherwise distracted and does not notice the emergency vehicle until it is too late."
That's why experts say emergency-driver training needs to expand beyond the basics of vehicle handling, braking and skid control to include what they call "due regard" for other drivers.
Currently, new law-enforcement officers have no requirement to even receive training on high-speed driving, according to Tim Bearden, director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. Students who graduate from the Training Center undergo 20 hours of vehicle handling instruction but not necessarily those from other police academies.
Bearden said the new initiatives will enhance that.
"Gov. Nathan Deal has made safer roads a priority in his administration. For those reasons, the Training Center plans to incorporate instruction on vehicle dynamics at higher speeds into our basic, law-enforcement-driver training beginning in November," he said.