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Back of police officer's head, looking onto the scene of a crash.

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Preparation key for safe driving

Police officers spend a great deal of their time in their patrol cars. And while they can't always control road conditions and unexpected obstacles, there are a lot of things members can do to maximize their safety on the road. Sigrid Forberg spoke with Cpl. Fred Popoff — a driving instructor at Depot, the RCMP's training academy in Regina, Saskatchewan — about his tips for safe driving.

What should police consider before driving?

Preparation is big. When's the last time you did a pre-patrol like you were taught at Depot? Are you starting to work on shift number four or five of your night shifts without adequate sleep? The last thing you want to be is sleepy or dozing off, stopped on the side of the road when something unexpected happens. What about distractions: is there something bothering you, from home or the office, that could distract you?

In the winter, do you know what the road conditions are like? Have you prepared yourself for being outside for a lengthy period? When it's -30 or -40 degrees and your vehicle stops running, it gets cold inside a vehicle in a very short time. Are you prepared to stay warm waiting for a tow truck? I have a carry bag with insulated high-visibility coveralls, boots with felt liners and extra mitts, which I took for every shift.

What about snacks and hydration? You should carry something in your car that has high energy — maybe protein bars or jerky. If you're not prepared, it could have disastrous results.

What are some common mistakes police make?

They have this mentality that they're going to be able to get there at all costs and don't take into consideration that physics take over when we're driving. In the summertime, roads are dry so there's a shorter stopping distance, but in the wintertime, we'll have issues like frosty roads or black ice. Those patches could either be when we're braking in a straight line or when we're going around a corner and we could lose control.

Look at your headlights: how fast can you go before you're going too fast to see far enough ahead to effectively react? At nighttime, headlights are designed for about 100 km/h. If we're driving to an emergency call on the highway, it's likely we're travelling well above 100 km/h and we simply can't see obstructions ahead of us. By the time we react, we'll have gone past the point of no return and physics will take over. By completing a proper pre-patrol, you check all the required lighting, that all your lighting works and your headlights and taillights are clean.

Do you have any tips to maximize safety inside the car?

Always wear a seatbelt. Having your soft body armour can also reduce your chance of being injured because it'll take some of the force from the airbag. Adjust your steering wheel so that if the airbag does go off, it will hit you in the chest. Keep things like clipboards off the steering wheel. If something sets off the airbag, the last thing you want to have is something on your steering wheel because it will become a missile, aimed right at your head or chest.

If you keep your duty bag in the front seat, ensure it's strapped in with the seatbelt and your flashlight and clipboard/formholder are secured. In a collision or a rollover, they can become missiles that could seriously injure you.

Know your vehicle: if you've been having problems with the same vehicle for tire issues, braking or handling, get it looked at because if we can't get to the call, we're of no use to the general public.

What's the most important thing for drivers to remember?

Know your area. Know the danger areas, whether it could be the people in your area or the terrain. How many times have you responded to crashes on the roadway where visibility is an issue? Ensure you can be seen with emergency lighting, flares, emergency triangles, vehicle positioning (remember the striping on the cars is reflective) and a proper safety pocket. The only one who can create a safe working area when conducting a traffic stop is you! Everyone is taught push-pull steering at Depot. How many people have gone back to the way they used to drive (one-handed, or hooking it)? Advanced driving courses advocate the push/pull method to keep greater control of the vehicle. Stay with your training, you're going to have better control of the vehicle. Two hands on the wheel are always safer than one.

Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express ().

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