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Car 54, How Fast Are You? An Entrance Exam for Rookie Cruisers
The New York Times
Chelsea, Mich.

At many law enforcement agencies around the country, a black-and-white cannot wear the uniform or set off in hot pursuit of lawbreakers unless it has first passed muster with the Michigan State Police.

Though a rearview mirror full of red and blue flashing lights is something I dread whenever I drive, I volunteered to spend two days last month with the highway patrol of this car-centric state, witnessing the performance tests of 2007 police vehicles. The program is a rigorous evaluation that guides purchase decisions for thousands of police departments, not only in the United States and Canada, but also in far-flung locations like Guam and Australia.

For observers, the atmosphere was intentionally picniclike, right down to the barbecued ribs and sweet corn served at lunch by Ford Motor; that morning, DaimlerChrysler provided breakfast, and dinner came courtesy of General Motors. Still, every time a patrol car whizzed by with its engine wailing I experienced the queasiness we all suffer when a police car comes into view.

Lt. David Halliday, 52, the manager of the program, eased some of that anxiety by suggesting I call him Doc, a nickname conferred by his troops. A 6-foot-4 teddy bear is hidden beneath his military bearing, burnished by 30 years of law enforcement work, including 24 with the Michigan State Police.

Twenty years ago, Lieutenant Halliday was a driving instructor at the state police training academy. His busman's holiday was test-driving new patrol cars at the annual evaluation program, an event that he helped develop into the acid test for police vehicles. According to the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the Department of Justice and a sponsor of the tests, the Michigan results directly influence $1.5 billion of annual sales, in a market of about 70,000 law enforcement vehicles.

"Acceleration, top speed and braking evaluations were first conducted by the M.S.P. in the 1950's - but only on the car from the manufacturer submitting the lowest bid," Lieutenant Halliday said, noting Michigan's longstanding role in this business.

"One year, when the gap between the low bid and the runner-up was $4.45, someone asked 'What if we paid an extra $5? Would we receive a better car?' We couldn't answer that question."

The need for more information, and turmoil in the industry caused by downsizing in the 1970's, prompted a major overhaul of the evaluation program. For the first time, any automaker willing to provide a car could participate in the test, which was expanded to six categories: acceleration; top speed; braking; vehicle dynamics or high-speed handling; fuel economy; and ergonomics and communications.

High-speed test-driving is done by four senior instructors in a state police driver-training school commanded by Lieutenant Halliday. Throughout the first test day here at the DaimlerChrysler Chelsea Proving Grounds, drivers gunned throttles and slammed brake pedals to gauge acceleration, top speed and braking performance. Day 2 takes place at Grattan Raceway near Grand Rapids, Mich., a two-mile course where handling was evaluated.

Evaluation of ergonomics and communications - an area rising in importance because of all the communications gear in modern patrol cars - is performed by a jury of 10 officers who test the cars on a state-owned course near Lansing. Each officer rates vehicles in 28 categories including comfort, functionality, visibility, access to storage areas and ease of routine maintenance, like checking the oil.

Similar evaluations are conducted in California by the sheriff's department of Los Angeles County; many agencies will buy vehicles only if they excel in both trials.

"The one major difference between Michigan and L.A. tests is the extra emphasis we place on stopping ability when the brakes are hot from repeated use," said Lt. Brian Moran, of the Los Angeles sheriff's department, who was in Michigan observing the tests. California's hills and traffic congestion stress brakes more severely than conditions in the Midwest.

Lieutenant Halliday runs the Michigan program with a staff of about 50, including colleagues and volunteers. The relationship between law enforcement agencies and the three domestic automakers that build police cars is mutually beneficial; officers provide real-world guidance so automakers produce better vehicles.

Police patrol vehicles tested this year consisted of seven sedans, two sport utility vehicles and two station wagons. Other vehicles that would be used by law enforcement - one pickup, four S.U.V.'s, and one wagon - were evaluated, too, but were exempted from grueling vehicle dynamics tests because they are seldom used in high-speed pursuit or emergencies.

The most interesting entry in that category was a Ford Escape Hybrid, which was tested in response to requests from law enforcement agencies interested in more fuel-efficient vehicles for parking patrols and administrative chores.

For safety's sake, observers watch from a compound adjacent to the five-mile banked oval at the proving grounds. One test vehicle at a time whizzed by on acceleration and top-speed runs. A special optical sensor sent precise speed readings to eliminate speedometer error as a factor. In addition, the cars are driven in both directions on the tracks to cancel wind effects. The reported top speed is the maximum velocity attained during a 14-mile full-throttle run.

The actual test runs are not especially exciting to witness. "We've learned how to make our measurements without compromising safety," Lieutenant Halliday said. "But there have been instances when the brakes caught on fire. We've also ripped out axles and plunged through fence lines during accidental off-course excursions."

I noticed ample smoke from brakes when the heavy S.U.V.'s were stopped four times from a speed of 90 miles an hour and eight times from 60 m.p.h. At the Grattan track, there was a nearly continuous howl of sliding tires and keening engines as test drivers sped through the turns on the racing line.

"Running flat out is an exhilarating experience," Sgt. Keith Wilson, the senior test driver, said. "But the opportunity to contribute to a program with far-reaching importance is an honor and what all of the test drivers savor most."

The preliminary results in a nutshell: one Dodge Charger patrol car with a Hemi V-8 set the pace with a 6.5-second run to 60 m.p.h. and a top speed of 148 m.p.h. A 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe S.U.V. reached a higher top speed than the ubiquitous Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor sedan, and the Tahoe stopped shorter from 60 m.p.h. The Dodge Charger and Dodge Magnum were by far the hottest pursuit vehicles at Grattan Raceway. (Results are available at

In my 35 years of testing cars at racetracks and proving grounds, I have never seen evaluations as comprehensive as the ones conducted here. Sergeant Wilson and his fellow test drivers demonstrated an aptitude for speed on the road course that would make them tough competitors on a racetrack should they decide to switch careers.
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