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."
[PAGEBREAK] Saving fuel, training dollars
Green Bay, Wis.-based Lamers Bus Lines will soon begin supplementing its behind-the-wheel training with a driver simulator, in a mobile classroom similar to DATTCO's, starting with its motorcoach drivers and then move onto its school bus drivers.
The cost for the simulator and the bus for the mobile classroom totaled $300,000. Lamers contracted with MPRI for the simulator and to remodel a flat front school bus, which will cost another $6,500, to use with the simulator. The carrier's insurance company, Protective Insurance, is helping to fund the project.
As with DATTCO, the bus is divided in half. The front half is a classroom section, where drivers can watch the screen to see what actions the trainee's taking.
The operator's drivers are fully licensed to drive school buses and motorcoaches, Cindi Lawler, school bus operations manager (Green Bay location), says. Lamers worked with Motor Coach Industries (MCI) to help with training staff on the simulator.
Schneider National, a multi-national Green Bay-based company that provides truckload, logistics and intermodal services, used to put its drivers through skid pad training — which uses a flat, slippery surface and a computerized system on the vehicle to teach drivers how to safely recuperate from skids — and would let Lamers drivers participate.
When most drivers get into the simulator, the trainer has to tell them to put themselves in the same frame of mind as if they're in an actual coach. Students often forget simple things, such as fastening their seat belts, even though the simulator is equipped with them. If the driver doesn't wear the seat belt, they accrue a point for that, or any other violation, all tracked by the software.
"On a training day, we want each driver to be behind the wheel multiple times, so they are in effect competing with themselves to improve where they had picked up points on a previous run," Lawler says.
Instructors can create any scenario a driver might encounter when in a vehicle, such as driving directly into bright sunlight; oncoming traffic with bright lights; extreme weather conditions; complete darkness; equipment failures, such as losing a headlight or brakes or getting a flat tire; or different types of terrain, and evaluate how the driver reacts.
The simulator monitors the driver's utilization of the different types of equipment and whether they are making the best use of it. For example, if they are driving a ZF transmission, designed with hills in mind, did the driver put themselves in the right gear when going up the hill or forget about the fact that they were driving a ZF?
"When they get settled in and start to feel comfortable, we can throw sudden things at them, like a dog running out in the road [unexpectedly], or other variables," Lawler says.
Like Gibson, Lawler points to the value of putting drivers in high-risk situations in a safe environment and getting them to think about how they would handle them.
"The more training we do makes our clients and drivers safer and improves the overall operation," she says. "We don't have to be in a risky situation to learn from it."
As the economy struggles, Lawler adds, simulator training seems like a way to continue to improve and expand its training program without burning additional fuel.
The cost of procuring the simulator unit, reconfiguring a vehicle and customizing software will be a barrier for many companies, Lawler admits.
"It is a big investment for Lamers, but we are betting on a bigger return in safety. There have been so many fatal motorcoach accidents in the last few months it makes you cringe.
"If we continue to provide more and better training for our drivers, we will be helping [them] identify risky behaviors and eliminate them, so we are eliminating risk," she adds.
Showing, not telling
Coach USA has used a simulator from Vigil Systems for the past six years to employ an interactive program, enabling drivers to watch their reactions and techniques and learn from them.
The operator averages 95 to 150 hours of training, both classroom and behind-the-wheel, per person. Yearly, drivers are trained on judging distance between vehicles, stopping distance, making turns, backing up, dealing with customers and defensive driving.
Cameras installed inside the bus monitor the driver, and cameras outside the bus monitor the surroundings. A member of Coach USA's safety staff takes the driver out on the bus to drive on certain routes and deal with different types of situations.
When finished, the trainer asks the driver to assess his performance.
"Usually, he'll say, 'I did good,'" Dale Moser, president & COO, Coach USA, says. The trainer will then ask about left hand turns, checking the mirror before making a turn and anything else the driver had forgotten.
"Sometimes [they] have been driving for 30 years. They've made those turns thousands of times, so they believe they have done well," Moser adds. "We [can] sit them in front of the computer and they'll be able to watch everything as it went on. It's showing as opposed to telling them."
[PAGEBREAK] Enhanced visibility and safety via mirrors
FAAC Inc., which serves the police, fire and transit markets, offers simulators with mirrors that can eliminate blind spots and provide enhanced safety.
While the supplier currently works primarily with the transit market, it can build an authentic cab replica of any motorcoach, from an MCI to a Van Hool, Steve Mentzer, manager, transit simulation, says.
FAAC's mirrors, an exclusive feature, provide a geometrically accurate view, without any compression. FAAC uses an optimal number of displays to show an accurate, 225-degree field of view, left to right.
FAAC's bus simulator's physical mirrors enable trainers to teach lean technique. "When you use an inset mirror, if you don't have an eye-tracker in the loop — an object that may not be visible during your initial mirror reference — it cannot be brought into view through leaning technique," Mentzer explains. "You don't have an opportunity to reinforce with an operator how you use that mirror to see further away from your bus."
Proper use of mirrors is critical to the training process, Mentzer says. "If you don't have a proper setup to begin with, how do you know you're able to see what you're supposed to in those mirrors?"
Based on working with the transit market, Mentzer cites the need for better mirror training, since there have recently been several left side pedestrian contact incidents. "We think part of it is people are being obstructed temporarily by the mirror assembly, or maybe the pillar column in the cab," he explains. "It's important to use a simulator that allows you to resolve those visual obstructions."
FAAC simulator displays are offset from the cab, so if a cab structure imposes a temporary obstruction, by moving in the seat, the driver can look around the pillar. If a person is hidden either by the door area, the front pillar or the mirror assembly, the driver should be able to look around that and make the person visible.
FAAC entered the transit market in 1999 through a public-private partnership with MTA's New York City Transit and produced a bus simulator with physical mirrors for the agency.
The agency compared new hires with and without simulator training. The biggest area of improvement was on right-side accidents. The drivers trained on the simulators in that first year didn't have right-side accidents during their initial probationary period, according to Mentzer.