Blues and twos belonging to a pair of marked police Volvo V70s suggest that the driver of the scruffy black Y-reg Ford Mondeo in front should carefully take to the hard shoulder of Perthshire’s northbound M90.
It’s not a rare sight on our motorways, and the drama is usually curtailed there and then.
But not today. Initially, the driver seems to comply, slowing and turning in. A stab and a steer later, he’s back on the carriageway and barrelling away fast. Inspector Darren Faulds’ expression hasn’t changed.
Behind the wheel, he looks sun-lounger relaxed. Sitting to his left, I can almost feel my pupils dilating, and from behind, photographer Stuart Price says his heart rate has just doubled.
We reel in the Mondeo and establish a buffer of 30 metres or so behind it. Slightly staggered, the V70s command a lane each, sometimes adopting single file to avoid civilian cars in the wake of the erratically meandering Ford, which is nearing three-figure speeds.
We push up and block off exits as we go, creating a funnel effect. Then the pace drops abruptly as all three cars are forced to burrow messily through a traffic jam. It turns out to be a rolling roadblock engineered by two more police cars at its head to slow the subject down and clear the carriageway in front. The Mondeo eventually breaks free and accelerates, but three police vehicles swoop in to surround it.
They tighten formation, using the guardrail as a fourth wall, until all four vehicles slow smoothly to a halt as one six-tonne, 16-wheeled unit.
Although it seems incredibly lifelike – heightened by the knowledge that these are active public roads – we’re actually experiencing day two of this week’s pursuit management course operated by the newly unified Police Scotland force from its Tulliallan Castle training college near Falkirk.
Instructors have just shown the three students in attendance the course’s primary endgame tactic, ‘containment’, by pursuing and confining Sergeant Colin Reid and his Mondeo – a buffer-wearing, part-oxidised (if much-loved) carcass worthy of Mad Max.
Reid – a veteran of multiple real-life containments – runs the course, overseen by Faulds, who literally wrote the book on it and helps shape road policing tactics for the entire UK. Faulds explains the value of pursuit management. “The subject used to have control,” he says, “and we’d end up with a ‘caravan effect’, where a long line of police vehicles would tack on behind. I’d find myself battling past panda cars just to reach the subject.
"Now, we prepare for a pursuit before it happens and take control of the situation, bringing it to a conclusion quickly and safely. We avoid inducing pursuits, but if one does materialise, we give the subject every chance to stop.”
Such preparation is orchestrated by a control room, assembling pursuit-appropriate vehicles and drivers when a chase is anticipated by a patrol that’s tailing a suspicious car. The patrol paints a picture of the scene: location, traffic, weather, surface conditions, subject’s manner of driving and speed. The subject is encouraged towards certain roads: quiet, narrow single-carriageways that allow easier containment, or motorways, where one direction of traffic and ample manoeuvring space aid safety and control.
Once the subject takes to the motorway, another unit acts as ‘feeder’ by taking a slip road in plain sight. The subject “takes the feed” and stays on the motorway to avoid him. Then the feeder immediately rejoins via the on-ramp, becoming ‘safety car’ to focus on civilian welfare.
If the subject fails to stop when prompted, the control room may choose to authorise pursuit tactics. At this stage, the first patrol car (ideally carrying one officer to use the radio and one to drive) assumes control as operations commander (‘ops comm’), and a pursuit begins.
The meat of our day is spent on a closed track at RAF Leuchars (busy home to two Eurofighter Typhoon squadrons and plenty of chilling, Cold-War-evoking sirens). For PCs John Quither, Andy Walls and Gavin Jack, it’s a chance to develop their containment skills in a safe environment. All three students are active officers and alumni of Police Scotland’s advanced driver training.
The first exercise helps them break the habit of keeping a distance. A column of three vehicles, with Reid’s subject car in the middle, does lengths of the straight. The rearmost driver learns to latch on to the subject’s rear bumper as gently and squarely as possible. The foremost driver should barely feel the nudge of connection from behind, and then uses his brakes to bring the column to a halt as ops comm calls out “slow, slow, slow” three times and then “stop, stop, stop”. Then it’s handbrake and footbrake on so the subject can’t shunt a gap open.
All this happens at no more than 20mph, but it might as well be 100mph; it’s minimising the speed differential between cars that’s paramount. Momentum exchange must be kept to a minimum to preserve stability. Push the subject too hard and it’s easy to roll off his bumper and induce a spin. Brake too hard and noses can wedge below tailgates, lightening rear axles and inducing violent fish-tailing.
The subsequent ‘brake and react’ exercise sees one driver staggered alongside another. The first performs an emergency stop from 50mph and the second must copy it immediately, but usually shoots by, halting around 10m in front. It shows the importance of gentle changes in speed.
Then the instructors park the cars as they would be at the conclusion of containment. The three vehicles in a column are touching, while the flanking car sits inches to one side. The students take a good look. Then it’s their turn to try containment, as detailed by our illustrations. From the back seat of containment car one, I can see that driver Walls’s eyes are like dinner plates in the rear-view mirror.
Training this may be, but it’s real-world intense. By the end of the week, he’ll be doing these manoeuvres on public roads and will develop the same calmness that Faulds showed this morning. While Price and I bubble with excitement – he says the day has been more thrilling than 200mph-plus in a Veyron – the police professionals are experts at taking the drama, and the danger, out of such extreme situations.