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A Safe Place To Make Mistakes

SUDBURY, ON — The key turns, the engine rumbles, air lines fill, and mirrors get checked. With a flick of the turn signal and a gentle acceleration, the driver leads his load out onto a country road. The Cummins diesel roars to life as a car, oblivious to the danger, speeds toward him.

The trucker tries to avoid the collision, but sounds of smashed glass and twisted metal alert onlookers to the tragic outcome of this lopsided confrontation.

Fortunately, it’s fake. Not unrealistic, but definitely fake.

It’s virtual reality, and the driver is in a simulator so true to life that it’s being used by dozens of companies across Canada to train new drivers and retrain older ones of all stripes.

With a 180-degree field of view, mirrors and transmissions ranging from automatic to 18-speed, the heavy-truck simulator enhances the learning experience of students and veteran drivers by putting what is learned in the classroom to the test.

By focusing on cognitive training, not just technique, simulators help drivers practise things such as accident avoidance, proper space management, and scanning techniques.

“It’s very true to life, with realistic scenarios that do happen in life every day,” says Sudbury-based Day Group trucker Ryan Legacy, who has been hauling ore and copper from mines in Northern Ontario for the past six years.  The Day Group has about 800 employees with about 450 of them behind the wheels of various vehicles.

“[The simulator] has raised my level of awareness in regards to defensive driving.”

That’s music to the ears of Mike Hamel, Day’s driver-trainer and simulation specialist. The company purchased their first simulator from DriveWise, of Barrie, ON, eight years ago in order to improve safety and keep the cost of equipment repair down.

That original unit has now been augmented by a second simulator; and the older one will likely be moved to a branch office in Timmins, says Day’s Transportation Safety Manager Mike Asselin.

Under Asselin’s watch, every Day driver gets retrained in the classroom and on the simulator at least every two years. “It’s four hours in the class—it’s very interactive so nobody falls asleep—and one hour on the simulator.”

“With the kind of weights that our drivers are dealing with [140,000 lbs], a clutch can be damaged rather quickly when the driver rests his foot on the clutch pedal. [The simulator] saves the company thousands of dollars of downtime each year just by detecting this and making the driver aware that he/she is doing it,” Hamel says. “In many cases, the driver is not even aware that they have picked up this habit.

“We are able to detect this on the simulator rather than in the real truck, which is a real timesaver for our department.”

Hamel says the simulator also helps weed out unsuitable drivers during the hiring process, and can identify significant behavioural problems, such as aggression.

DriveWise began operations a decade ago. Their simulators are capable of duplicating dozens of heavy haulers and dump trucks, emergency and municipal vehicles, and buses, as well as heavy equipment such as graders and loaders.

DriveWise says a simulator, complete with courseware and support, costs between $130,000 and $160,000, depending on the package.

Last year, the North East Native Advancing Society (NENAS) said yes to simulator technology when it purchased two mobile training units, as well as driving and heavy equipment simulators. They now play a significant role in the training programs run out of their Fort St. John, B.C., headquarters.

Chris Boomer, an instructor with NENAS’ innovative learning centre, says the new technology they incorporate into their classes through the driving simulator and interactive lectures has revolutionized their teaching model, and brought them immediate success.

“The technology has helped with the learning,” Boomer says, adding they’ve now started to introduce the heavy equipment simulators into their curriculum. “It’s fun, promotes engagement, and motivates clients to participate and learn.

“Before, the students had difficulty passing the ICBC [Insurance Corporation of British Columbia] knowledge test for their licences. But after taking the Quickstart program, they passed the test and can now start the graduated program to get their full licences.”

Before joining NENAS, Boomer earned his stripes behind the wheels of all manner of rigs across the west and into the mountains. He knows what a mistake behind the wheel can mean.

“I’d even go so far to say simulator saves lives,” Boomer told Today’s Trucking. “Better a beginner has  an accident on the screen than on the highway.”

Other veterans find the customized scenarios helpful, as well.

“It made me realize my bad habits, and also made me aware that I was complacent, which could have caused me to crash in real life,” says Steve Anthony, an 18-year veteran driver with Day who is used to hauling 70 tons every day.

Moe Ndlovvo, who hauls copper concentrate across Northern Ontario and into Quebec, knows that what he learns while sitting in the simulator can prevent harder lessons in real life.

“It taught me what to do if I get a front tire blowout, which could save my life and the lives of others on the road.”

 
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