ODOT snowplow drivers use simulator to reduce mishaps
Employees of the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) are already out on Oregon's highways plowing snow. In the high country of the coast range and the Cascades as well as up the Columbia River gorge and throughout the eastern half of the state, skilled ODOT drivers will be out in the worst possible conditions all winter long to help make our roads safer for travel.
Every year, Oregon's snowplow drivers head out with the first snows. Yet many have not driven a snowplow for six months or more, and some are driving for the first time. The snowplow trucks are large and incorporate complicated equipment including multiple plows and equipment to spread grit on the roads to increase traction. Hazards on snowy roads include parked or stranded vehicles, reckless drivers, and even wild animals that may try to cross the road.
"Last year we suffered a whole lot of snowplow strikes across the state, either by the traveling public or incidents involving our drivers on unfamiliar roads," says Tim McKenzie, Region 2 Safety Manager for ODOT.
In ODOT language, a strike means a collision.
"Usually we get driven into or forced off the road by somebody else," McKenzie explains. "This is a common problem we have in the winter throughout the whole state. When we get a plow strike, it can run anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 per incident. And that's just to fix the equipment and get it back on the road. That doesn't include the loss of service time. We are short on plows, and we are short on people. Plus, we're only out there using our plows at the moments when they are most critically needed."
To enhance driver skill and reduce the number of accidents this winter, ODOT has partnered with Tillamook Bay Community College (TBCC) to use the college's driving simulator to give the snowplow operators some practice and coaching on working in the snow before winter brings the real thing. Most of the year, TBCC's simulator is used as part of the college's program to train commercial truck drivers to get their Commercial Driver License (CDL).
"We started looking at options to get people familiar with the roads and the equipment a little bit more," McKenzie continues. "We wanted to see what kind of preventative training we can do. One of the guys had heard about driving simulators, but we didn't know where to find one. We started looking around and I happened to find out that Tillamook Bay Community College has their own CDL program and they had a simulator that was part of it. I started looking into the company that makes the simulator, and they had a snowplow module that they could put in."
ODOT rented the simulator from TBCC for the month of October to give some of its snowplow drivers a chance to practice and experience some life-like emergencies without the dire consequences of learning on the job.
The simulator system includes a bank of computers and three large display screens placed in front of a dashboard, steering wheel, and driver's seat that closely approximates what you'll find in a commercial truck. The student sits in the driver's seat and the system responds to his or her inputs. The seat even moves and shakes to heighten the virtual reality.
"It's a really good tool for our new employees," says instructor Jared Britton, a Transportation Maintenance Coordinator for ODOT. "Two of our students today are out of Warrenton. They just came on a month ago, so they're new to ODOT. They have some driving experience, but they don't have any plow experience. So this is giving them a little bit of time before winter hits. We know it's not a perfect setup, but it starts to give them a little confidence, and it's better than hitting the snowy slopes without ever having done it before. It's a lot cheaper to crash the simulator!"
While the student is driving over roads that may be straight or windy, the instructor can adjust the amount of traffic, road hazards, and even animal or human figures that appear to step out in front of the truck. The student can "see" the truck's mirrors and note upcoming traffic, and control the snowplows as they would on an actual truck.
"This is the place where we push the envelope a little for them," Britton explains. "We actually encourage them to see what happens when they're doing things. We can also induce lots of malfunctions with this. We can cause flat tires, or running out of gas, or take away traction from the rear wheels. We can mess it up real bad for them! Right now we've got a fairly big snowstorm going, which is another factor we can change. And we can go from day to night, because a lot of these guys plow all night long. It's a whole different game out there at night!"
Operating a simulator may seem like playing a video game at first, but there's a strong data analytics element to the snowplow training that allows instructors to evaluate a driver's critical emergency skills in a safe environment.
"This is a really advanced system," McKenzie explains. "Not only does it use a camera to record the driver and the action, it also records pedal and steering inputs and things like that. So you can see when a malfunction is induced, and then how long before driver reacts to it. If there's a problem with the vehicle, you can see how they react to it. So it's a great training tool to go back through and see that it took a driver some amount of time to respond to an emergency."
The real payoff of the month ODOT spent in Tillamook training its drivers will come over the next 3 to 4 months as those drivers work on keeping our roads passable. The skills gained and practiced on the simulator should help keep snowplow strikes to a minimum this year. Motorists can help by preparing their cars with winter tires, practicing safe winter driving, and never attempting to pass a snowplow without explicit direction from the plow driver.
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