Traffic Police. Just blokes driving about in the latest kit trying to nab you? Or a branch of the police tasked with looking at and dealing with the carnage of other people’s stupidity or trying to catch the nasty little Chavs we all hate hanging around car parks? Around three years ago, I spend some time watching over the shoulders of traffic Police in training and spent the day alongside Durham Police under training for pursuit and something called TPAC maneuvres…..
We meet in the briefing room and shake hands with a group of high-res clad people, mugs of strong tea being passed around. Standing amongst them is a 6 foot plus guy on the wrong side of 16 stone, dressed in a scruffy denhim shirt, jeans and baseball cap on about first. Looks like he’s on the way to a lock up…. Actually, this is Dave, one of the senior instructors and today’s bad guy. Driving an unmarked Ford Mondeo, it’s his job to replicate as accurately but safely as possible your average nasty car thief. For photography, we’re riding shotgun with him on the first exercise to shoot pictures looking back at the BMW traffic cars.
We set off into the town and drive along a known route, just to speed up the intercept and get straight to business – stopping us. Explains Dave, “Right now, I’m just your average scally, driving along pretending it’s my car, with every right to be there, basically, running a bluff.” The radio in the Mondeo’s glove box chatters, indicating we’ve been spotted.
“Provided I don’t do anything reckless, they’ll keep the confrontation as short as possible by getting any assets they need in place. Unless, of course, I do this…”
Dave drops two gears and off we go…. As we gather speed, blatantly running for it, they respond, but a little late, as Dave has already put a couple of vehicles between us, including a large bus and then deftly hangs a rapid left turn while monetarily screened from view. There’s a slight delay on the radio commentary, but they don’t fall for it and though baulked by the bus, they make the turn and continue the chase, but now we’ve made over 100 metres on them now and the way Dave’s going that’s going to take some clawing back as we crest a brow, everything going light before the weight comes back onto the wheels and he’s hard on the brakes to make another change of direction. Looking back, the BMW 530i training car is really working hard, Dave’s not taking prisoners. “So if you could lose them, would you do it?”
“Dead right. That’s the whole point. There was a moment just then when I thought we could and that would drive home a painful lesson. If I can get away, I always will.”
On we charge, Dave basically driving-like-he-stole-it but all the time, the glovebox mounted radio chattering constantly as more cars are put into position ahead. “Good”, says Dave, “That’s someone really thinking”, as on the radio, the man in the passenger seat of the pursuing BMW is setting the trap.
Eventually, we get blocked in on the main dual carraigeway and it’s pretty much gave over, but Dave doesn’t give up. Right to the bitter end, lunging and diving like the best desperate thief that he is. He’s hauled out of the car and we move off with a uniformed guy behind the wheel of the Ford and then pull in for a debrief in a side road. The discussion is blunt and to the point, praise given, but no punches pulled about the moment at the start of the chase when we almost mugged them up the side road. “If I’d been a bit quicker, you’d have totally lost sight and in that instant, they’re out of the car and gone. You’d have arrived to an empty car and no way of proving who was driving it …” Point taken.
It’s enlightening as I look between the shoulders of the two crew in front.
We head back to the training HQ for a strong brew of tea and set up the next excercise. This time, I’d riding in the back of a BMW 530D. The same start of the exercise, tagging the Mondeo’s rear until Dave lights it up and dives off, leaving no alternative but to chase. It’s enlightening as I look between the shoulders of the two crew in front.
Siting in the back of the 530D approaching a city street, your instincts say you need to take a lift, with all the side turnings, slow moving traffic and potential for hazards. Not so, as the throttle stays buried and the two in the front seats are working hard to tread a fine path between the traffic that generally dives kerbside, staying with the bandit car or slipping up and being vilified by the general public and press. The concentration required is simply massive, but there’s no dramas or melodramatics, just short, concise speech on the radio and quick notes between the two of potential hazards to the general bystanders ahead. “Two cyclists 200″ That’s metres ahead, tucked behind a truck but just visible. The 530 goes wide right into the clear space away from a potentially rattled pair at 80 mph…
A running commentary over the radio for control room and colleagues…
“Right, Right at junction…… Wrong way across traffic island, speed 80, risk medium….”
In the back, I’m sitting with an examiner and the man who’ll have the final say on the continued careers up front. Why is risk only medium at 80 in a 30?
“Because it’s an open junction, no other traffic, so while 80 in a 30 is considered madness and highly illegal, the actual relative risk of continuing the pursuit is low. At 3.30pm outside a school, however, that would be very high risk and we’d have to consider breaking off….”
So you would break off a pursuit? “Yes, if it becomes clear that the driver has absolutely no regard for life and is prepared to kill others or himself to get away, that’s not a price worth paying. That’s what helicopters and police dogs are for..”
The TPAC. You’ve seen it on all the police chasing TV programmes. The theory is that a rolling road block traps the bad guys and they roll to a halt with no escape route and get nabbed. Sounds easy. Sounds also like a recipe for damage. The final objective is to contain a runaway car into a box of Police cars, away from the immediate public and bring the car to a controlled halt. Our hosts would rather I didn’t go into the finer details of exactly how this is achieved, but the pictures show just how close we are driving on a motorway momentarily cleared of innocent traffic using their well practiced techniques.
Driving home, I reflect on the very specific skill set required to be a Police traffic driver. It’s a different technique to driving from track driving and indeed wouldn’t work in a race track environment. Team work, constant collaboration and the very specific style of driving they adhere to creates a driver armed with a skill set enabling them to drive at high speed, amongst the general public with the minimum of risk while co-ordinating assets with colleagues. Driving egos must be left in the locker room, signs of high stress and adrenaline must be controlled at all times. A moments mistake spells disaster for innocent bystanders. Me? I’ll stick with signing disclaimers at race tracks where there are gravel traps and safety marshalls, thank you…