The first snow of winter has arrived, and across the country municipalities and state transportation agencies are busy clearing snow. It’s a tough job and snow plow drivers will be out and about in the worst conditions all winter long to make our roads safer for travel.
What’s unique about snowploughing is that many operators haven’t driven the snowplough for six months or more, and some drive a plow for the first time each year.
Snow plow trucks are large and typically contain intricate equipment, including multiple plows and equipment for spreading grit or salt on the roads to increase traction. Dangers on snowy roads can include parked or stranded vehicles, reckless drivers, and even wild animals trying to cross the road.
“Last year we suffered a slew of snow plow strikes across the state, either at the hands of the traveling public or incidents involving our drivers on unfamiliar roads,” said Tim McKenzie, safety manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).
In this case, strike is not a labor dispute, but a technical term for something that gets into something. Snow plow collisions are a major problem across North America, and repair costs can be staggering.
“It’s a common problem,” McKenzie explained. “Usually we get pulled onto the road or pushed off the road by someone else. If we get a plow strike, it can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 per incident.
“And that’s just to fix the gear and get it back on the road. This does not include lost service time. We lack ploughs, and we lack men. In addition, we only use our plows when they are needed most.”
Technology offers a solution
To improve driver skills and reduce the number of collisions this winter, ODOT was looking for a way to train its drivers off-season. The state agency has partnered with a community college in Tillamook, Oregon, to use the school’s truck driving simulator to give snow plow drivers some practice and coaching for working in the snow before winter brings reality.
For most of the year, the simulator is used as part of the college’s CDL program to train professional drivers.
“We started looking at options to get people a little more comfortable with the roads and gear,” continued McKenzie. “We wanted to see what kind of preventive training we could do. One of the guys had heard about driving simulators but we didn’t know where to find one. We started looking around and happened to find that Tillamook Bay Community College (TBCC) has its own CDL program and they had a simulator that was part of it. I started looking around for the company that makes the simulator and they had a snow plow module that they could fit.”
ODOT leased the simulator from TBCC for the month of October to give some of their snowplow drivers the opportunity to practice and experience some real-life emergencies without the dire consequences of on-the-job learning.
Like a real truck
The simulator system includes a series of computers and three large screens placed in front of a dashboard, steering wheel and driver’s seat, which closely resembles what you would find in a commercial truck. The student sits in the driver’s seat and the system reacts to his inputs. The seat even moves and wobbles to enhance virtual reality.
“It’s a really good tool for our new hires,” said instructor Jared Britton, transportation maintenance coordinator at ODOT. “Two of our students today are from Warrenton, Oregon. They only came a month ago, so they are new to ODOT.
“They have some driving experience but no plowing experience. So that gives them a little time before winter comes. We know it’s not a perfect setup, but it’s starting 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!”
Like driving on real snowy roads
As the student navigates straight or winding roads, the instructor can adjust the amount of traffic, road hazards, and even animal or human characters that appear to step in front of the truck.
In addition, the student can see a rear view on the screen, just like when looking through the truck’s mirrors, and notice upcoming traffic. A joystick allows the student to control the positions of the snow plows as they would on a real truck.
“This is where we push the envelope a little bit for them,” Britton explained. “We actually encourage them to see what happens when they do something. We can induce many malfunctions with this simulator.
“We can cause flat tires, run out of fuel or cause the rear wheels to lose traction. We can really spoil it for them! Right now we have a pretty big blizzard 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. It’s a whole different game out there at night!”
Much more than a game
Operating a simulator may at first seem like playing a video game, but the training includes a strong data analysis element that allows instructors to assess a driver’s critical emergency skills in a safe environment.
“It’s a really advanced system,” McKenzie explained. “It not only records the driver and what is happening on camera, but also pedal and steering inputs and the like. This allows you to see when a fault is triggered and how long it takes for the driver to react. If there is a problem with the vehicle, you can see how they react to it. So it’s a great training tool to go back over and see that it has taken a driver some time to respond to an emergency.”
ODOT expects that the real benefit will come in the form of fewer collisions and problems as the winter progresses. The skills acquired and practiced on the simulator should help to reduce snow plow impacts to a minimum.
If a clear benefit can be demonstrated, the agency plans to invest in its own simulator. Even at a cost of up to $250,000 for the simulator and the full-featured trailer it rides in, that could be cheaper than the usual bill for snowplow repairs due to collisions.