Officers learning safe way to ride

By Lynn R. Parks

By the end of the week, Seaford policemen Thomas LeCates and Marc Whitney will have slid to the pavement while driving their motorcycles. And they will be proud of having done so. "We want to expose the officers to as many situations and as many incidents that we can think of," said Franklin Wastler, a sergeant with the Maryland State Police and designer of an 80-hour motorcycle rider school. "We want to push the officers to their limits, then push a little bit more so that they learn how to handle stress and how to react best." Wastler, a 24-year veteran of the state police, has been a motorcycle policeman since 1986. He designed his course, which includes learning to "lay a motorcycle down," in 1993. "I had been to other schools and I thought there needed to be more emphasis on officer and rider safety," he said.

Since then, he has taken his course across the country to 104 state and municipal police agencies and to more than 450 people. The Seaford course, arranged by Seaford Police sergeant and course veteran Robert Lee, started Monday, July 10, and will go through Friday. It is being taught partially in Seaford and partially at state police locations in Maryland. In addition to LeCates and Whitney, Sgt. Sam Cottman and TFC Dan Delfanso, both with the Maryland State Police in Berlin, are taking the course for recertification, which is required three times a year. The Seaford Police Department has two motorcycles, both 1998 Harley Davidson Electro-Glides. Shortly, they will be traded in on more current models. Following the two-week course, LeCates and Whitney will spend four weeks riding with Lee. If at the end of the four weeks he determines that they are ready, Lee will certify them as motorcycle police officers. If not, they could go back to Wastler for additional training.

The Seaford Police Department is the first in Delaware to undergo such training. There is no charge to the city for the course, which is certified by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. In the second week of training, officers learn to put a moving motorcycle on its side. Starting at speeds between 15 and 20 miles per hour, they go through a series of exercises that enable them to allow the bike to fall over. Eventually, they are able to do it at 40 miles per hour. "If otherwise you will have a collision, it is best to lay the motorcycle down," said Wastler. "You learn to let it slide away and it becomes a barrier for you. Or if someone is coming at you, you do this to defend yourself. The bike can become a cover."

Participants also learn how to maneuver in tight circles, how to negotiate congested streets and the demands of various road conditions. At a course set up at the Seaford Industrial Park, the officers, led by Wastler, drove their bikes through compact, complicated patterns laid out with bright orange cones.

"Two days really make a huge difference," said city manager Dolores Slatcher, who had watched the men on Monday and was back on Wednesday. "That first day, they kept wanting to put their feet down. Today they keep their feet on the foot boards. It is a big change." A 300-foot "skid pan" set up at the Maryland State Police barracks in Sykesville, Md., will give the riders practice in driving on slippery surfaces. "You have to learn to go through it without hitting the brakes," said Wastler.

Near the end of the course, participants will practice night driving. Not just any old night driving, but night driving with a twist: With lights flashing, Wastler will chase them, on roads and through fields, at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. "We want to get them not to panic, to keep their presence of mind," he said.

Roy Russell, a sergeant with the Montgomery County (Md.) Police Department who puts up to 50 miles on his motorcycle every day, is a certified instructor and was helping Wastler last week. "We use these skills every day," he said. "They are absolutely essential for keeping officers safe and free of injuries." In fact, just recently a car pulled in front of a Montgomery County policemen and the officer lay his motorcycle on its side, Russell said. "You don"t want to go down on a motorcycle," he added. "There is nothing easy about learning it. But in certain situations, it is a good skill to have."

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