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With fuel costs hitting record increases, budgets still thinning, more motorcoach accidents being reported in the press and new proposed safety legislation, some operators are turning to upgrading their driver training programs with simulators. The equipment enables operators to provide a safe environment for learning and correcting unsafe driver habits, as well as save money on fuel costs with behind-the-wheel training.
New Britain, Conn.-based DATTCO started using an MPRI driver simulator for training about 18 months ago.
"This technology's been around in the airline industry for years, but it's kind of new to our industry in terms of being an affordable investment," says DATTCO's COO Cliff Gibson.
DATTCO reconfigured one of its coaches, removing the seats and mounting the simulator unit in the coach, creating a mobile classroom. The operator invested about a quarter of a million dollars in the program, between the hardware and the installation and purchasing a reconditioned unit at a trade show. MPRI customized the unit for the carrier's coach.
"We spent some money on the interior of one of our older buses to make it a classroom setting. These things are usually put in buildings or on trailers," Gibson explains.
Placing the unit in a motorcoach enables DATTCO to bring the training to drivers at any of their 12 service locations. The unit resembles a driver's cockpit and features three big screens, a seat with a steering wheel and full control dashboard.
"It's kind of like an amusement park ride," Gibson says. "When you blow a tire, the screens in front of you show what's happening."
The simulator is hooked up to software programs that allow DATTCO to recreate a myriad of actual driving challenges, such as snow, rain, sleet, fog, construction sites, accident scenes, emergency vehicles, flag men, parked cars and pedestrians darting in front of the vehicle. Obstacles can be changed and manipulated, depending on the experience level of the driver.
DATTCO also partnered with MPRI to develop courses that cover basic defensive driving techniques, including backing, monitoring speed, space management and lane positioning.
It took the carrier close to 18 months to install the hardware, work out electrical issues and create the mobile classroom setting. The operator instituted its in-house training in January, but it took a few months to get the software packages customized to mirror the types of vehicle use that it primarily experiences.
"In the beginning I would say there was more curiosity about it, but now it's become a popular thing," Gibson says. "Everybody wants to take their tests in the simulator, see how they do, [earn] bragging rights."
Nearly 120 of DATTCO's motorcoach and transit drivers have completed the one-hour basic training package. Sitting in the simulator, they assess their driving skills by taking an exam with a score sheet. An instructor sits behind them and runs the program.
In a separate area of the bus, students can watch on the screen what's happening in the simulator unit. Gibson says what makes the simulator a great safety tool is it enables operators to put drivers in an environment where they can teach them what it feels like to encounter something that, even if they have been driving for many years, they may never have experienced, such as blowing a front tire.
"We can give them that experience in a non-collision situation. They can feel what it's like to blow a tire at highway speed and control a vehicle better," he says.
Gibson adds that, so far, the program has been successful. "Our drivers really appreciate the fact that we can bring them into a non-threatening environment. That's great for learning and correcting bad habits before they occur," Gibson says.
The operator provides quarterly re-assessments of all its drivers and conducts post-accident training.
"We bring them in, go over what happened in the accident and look [for] any developing bad habits," Gibson explains.
Creating a safe environment
DATTCO's goal over the next two years is to review its safety numbers and preventable accidents and see if it has improved factors, such as driver habit safety records and speed control.
Previously, DATTCO's six-week training program for all drivers consisted of four weeks of classroom, the International Motorcoach Group training certification course, and two weeks of in-city or over the road driving, teaching the basics of all of its motorcoaches, transit and activity vehicles and analyzing the drivers' strengths.
The carrier added basic refresher training for some drivers, screening training for all new hires and the ability to do it in an environment without taking vehicles on the road.
"You can let them experience many practical challenges, but in an environment where they get a chance for do-overs, which you don't get in the real world," Gibson says. "That's the real benefit."
While the simulator doesn't bring a discount on the insurance premium, DATTCO has worked with its insurance carrier to craft the software to reflect the latest industry trends.
"Over time, if your accidents go down, that's big savings," Gibson says. "We're not making an investment of this magnitude without some forethought on the bottom line."
Gibson believes a reduction in insurance premiums for operators that use training simulators may not be far off.
"People understand the benefit of it to the driver, which is going to translate to the company's safety performance over time," Gibson says. "The industry focus has always been on safety. We feel that this is almost an evolutionary step that is going to prove results in safety, and cost benefit analysis will follow."