NIU hybrid police cars
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Contact: Joe King,
NIU Office of Public Affairs
September 5, 2006
DeKalb, Ill. — Two years ago, when they started up their patrol cars each morning, officers of the Northern Illinois University Department of Public Safety were pioneers – one of the first police forces in the nation to begin experimenting with hybrid Toyota Prius vehicles as patrol cars.
Today the cars have ceased being a novelty, and the experiment is long over. The Prius has become the vehicle of choice for the department, making up 80 percent of its fleet with the rest to be replaced by hybrids as budgets allow.
“From the very start, these cars have done everything that we have asked of them, everything that we have needed. They have proven themselves the perfect tool for the job,” says NIU Police Chief Don Grady, who leads a 45-person force charged with patrolling what is essentially a small city of about 30,000 people spread over 1.2 miles.
Officers use the cars for all routine patrol, traffic control, prisoner transport and emergency response just like their counterparts in cities, suburbs and small towns across the country. The vehicles are on the road seven days a week averaging a little over 1,300 miles a month and have so far required only the same routine maintenance as the traditional vehicles they replaced. The university’s general motor pool also includes 12 Prius hybrids, which have similar maintenance histories.
High on the list of attributes that attracted the department to the hybrid was the possibility of saving money on gasoline, something that has become increasingly important as gas prices today are more than 60 percent higher than in 2004 when the department began adding the Prius to its fleet. The compact cars alternately operate on an electric motor or a gasoline engine, depending upon power requirements and the need to charge the battery, which is done automatically by the gasoline engine. Where the department’s fleet of Crown Victorias previously averaged less than 10 miles per gallon, the Prius sips gasoline at a rate of about 44 mpg.
However, improved gas mileage would not have been enough to make the Prius the department’s vehicle of choice, says Grady. It also had to meet all of the functional needs of its larger counterpart. The car has done so and, in fact, officers report that in some ways it is superior to the larger vehicle it replaced.
“Its compact nature allows us to get into areas we couldn’t get to in a big squad car,” says Officer Jeanne Meyer who, prior to joining the NIU force, served as a federal agent and in the military where she drove traditional police cruisers. “It’s wonderfully suited to campus and I think it would work out just as well in any urban environment where you are mostly traveling short distances – which is most of modern policing,” she says.
The car’s maneuverability also has been demonstrated time and again when officers take it to the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy for driver training. It typically performs in the upper echelon of all vehicles on the test course. Also the department has found that, over short distances, the acceleration of the Prius matches that of the Crown Victoria it replaced.
“For departments like ours, we don’t need the power as much as we need the maneuverability,” says Officer Alan Smith. “We can get wherever we want just as fast with the Prius as with the Crown Vic.”
The day-in-and-day-out use of the car also has dispelled other concerns. For instance, while its exterior dimensions are much smaller than the Crown Victoria, the interior of the Prius is similarly roomy. Officers on the police force (including Grady, who stands 6’ 7”) report no difficulty entering or leaving the vehicle even when wearing body armor and utility belts.
The cars also have been easy to convert to police service, says Officer Mark Roccaforte, who serves as the department’s quartermaster. All of the police package equipment installed in the vehicles – lights, sirens, half cage for prisoners, radios, video cameras, etc. – is the same as that installed by the department in its Crown Victorias. The only alteration required was removing the middle console in the front seat to install a flashlight charger and cup holder.
Roccaforte, who previously always drove Crown Victorias while on patrol, and has owned no other car model for personal use, has become an unabashed endorser of the Prius. He has fielded calls from police departments across the nation and has happily provided glowing reports.
“The chief gave me an opportunity to make a case for staying with the Crown Victoria, but I couldn’t come up with a single legitimate concern,” says Roccaforte who recently got the opportunity to showcase a hybrid patrol car in front of congressmen who sit on the House Committee on Science.
While several other departments across the nation have tried the Prius or other hybrids for themselves, such departments remain very much in the minority. However, as the car continues to prove itself and gas prices continue to rise, NIU police officers are noticing a different tone in the questions they are receiving from other officers and the public.
“I think as people see more and more of the hybrid cars on the road they are becoming more used to them in general,” says Smith. “They are still a conversation starter, but we aren’t getting kidded as much as before.”
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