They looked and felt like giant video games, but the virtual scenarios they created for drivers could mean the difference between life and death on the real road.
Over a three-day period last week, 41 bus drivers, mechanics and monitors from the Oxford school district participated in a simulator program conducted by the Michigan Center for Truck Safety (MCTS).
MCTS is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving highway safety through comprehensive educational programs for drivers of commercial motor vehicles.
Once behind the wheel of the simulator, it was up to each user to safely navigate their way through snow, rain, black ice and slippery roads, heavy traffic, drivers who are speeding, aggressive or reckless, accidents, emergency vehicles and pedestrians.
“There are several people that pop out in between the buses that they have to avoid,” said MCTS Safety Specialist Justin Jahn. “And the very last one, if they’re not waiting patiently, they will hit that person.”
These simulations reinforce the importance of being aware of your surroundings, being patient and driving slow when circumstances warrant lower speeds.
“That’s what we’re trying to teach them,” Jahn said. “You don’t need to go fast, especially in adverse (weather) conditions such as rain and snow.”
Based on what he saw, Jahn said Oxford parents “can feel extremely confident in their (school bus) drivers.”
“They’ve all done tremendous, every single one,” he said.
Ann Weeden, the school district’s transportation supervisor, believes Jahn’s instruction, coupled with the simulations, provided her and her staff with “a lot of good information” and she noted “it was free of charge.”
“Overall, I thought the presentation was good and I think the drivers appreciated it,” she said. “Any tools that we can use to help us do our jobs better (are) wonderful.”
Weeden said the program is a good “reminder” that when road conditions “deteriorate” and visibility is “impaired” due to things like snow, rain and fog, “everybody, not just bus drivers, needs” to “slow down” and be “cautious.”
“You really need to just be on your game,” she said.
Driver Amy Bergeron said it was “good to have a refresher” regarding the importance of being safe and staying aware on the road, especially after not being behind the wheel of a school bus all summer.
Plus, she thought the simulator was “fun.”
Andrea McMaster, who is currently training to be a substitute driver, found the simulator program to be a valuable experience.
“I’ve driven in mostly perfect weather (during training), so this is new to me,” she said.
McMaster indicated she “learned a lot,” including the importance of controlling your speed and using your mirrors. She also learned that a driver must always be aware of their environment because “anything can happen.”
“I’m glad I was asked to do this,” she said.
Although the majority of the 41 transportation employees who participated in the program were drivers, Weeden invited her two mechanics and some monitors to participate because there are times when the former has to drive buses to and from the field when breakdowns occur, while the latter are riding in them on a daily basis.
“I didn’t want to exclude anybody,” said Weeden, who’s been transportation supervisor since November 2011 and a full-time district employee since 1996.
“I also invited the Kingsbury (Country Day School) drivers to come down (and use the simulators), (but) unfortunately, they couldn’t make it,” she noted.
When asked if she would like to make the MCTS simulator program a regular part of driver education in Oxford, Weeden said, “I don’t know about (doing it on an) annual (basis), but as our staff turns over, I think it’s definitely something I would revisit in the future – maybe (do it) every couple of years.”
Weeden recommends other school districts take advantage of the MCTS simulator program.
“I think anything that we can do to do our jobs better and ensure the safety of (the students on the buses and surrounding motorists) is beneficial,” she said. “Safety first.”