Reality show

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Using an MPRI simulator, Ace Transportation driver Anthony Delasbour is able to receive training in winter driving that otherwise would be a rare opportunity at Ace’s Lafayette, La., headquarters.

Trucker Anthony Delasbour plows down a snowy interstate near his company’s headquarters in Lafayette, La. The mid-March sun may have melted much of the slush from the roadway, but Delasbour is still going too fast and isn’t paying enough attention to his surroundings. In fact, a white pickup truck visible in the driver’s side mirror is bleeding into his lane, perilously close to Delasbour’s flatbed loaded with pipe for bayou oil fields.

In an instant, Delasbour’s left drive tire blows, and his tractor – which is going more than 60 mph – dips left and collides with the pickup truck.

Had this been real, the driver of the four-wheeler would have been seriously hurt – or even killed – and Delasbour’s carrier, Ace Transportation, would have been on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. But the accident was all part of a pre-arranged scenario controlled by Nick Treadway, a commercial motor vehicle driving instructor at a nearby technical school.

“That happens most of the time,” Treadway says with a satisfied smirk from the safety of his desk in the front of a 53-foot air-conditioned trailer. With the click of his mouse, Treadway has caused the blowout in a high-tech truck-driving simulator Delasbour is using 20 feet away. Treadway is at the head of a classroom where three other drivers view Delasbour’s crash on a large flat-screen monitor. The results are visible even if the accident is virtual.

Delasbour, a veteran driver with more than 30 years on the road, says the simulator is impressive, even if it isn’t reality. “You don’t have a feel for the road, but it acts the way a truck would,” he says.

Truck driver training has come a long way in recent years with the development of sophisticated simulators, educational software and monitoring systems designed to improve the skills of new drivers and veterans alike. Although nothing has replaced the experience drivers gain behind the wheel, training technology – and the methods developed to implement it – has improved substantially. Carriers are investing substantial sums in motion-based and stationary simulators, integrating real-world video of their own drivers into their training sessions and testing truckers via the Internet on everything from city driving to border-crossing procedures.

Although safety remains the core aim of adding technology to driver training, carriers say there are productivity and retention benefits beyond just avoiding accidents. Whether it’s getting new drivers on the road faster or evaluating new hires before they hit the road, the benefits offered by technology are producing a return on investment beyond its cost.

Statistics tell the story
Nowhere has the investment in training technology evolved more than with simulators. Only a few large carriers – notably Werner Enterprises, J.B. Hunt, Maverick, Bison Transport and Swift – have high-end simulators, but the market is about to take off. The reason: Even the most expensive simulators are showing a return on investment.

Schneider National inked a $5 million deal last fall to install more than 50 high-end driving simulators across the country. When it considered making the expenditure, the company didn’t bake soft numbers into the equation as is often the case with safety-based technology, says Don Osterberg, vice president of safety and driver training. The Green Bay, Wis.-based company was able to justify the cost with its new drivers program alone, though it expects every one of its 16,000 drivers to sit in a simulator annually.

Osterberg says Schneider began evaluating the technology in 2004 with an ambitious pilot program. It split a large group of new drivers between its traditional training program and a new educational regimen that incorporated a Mark III full-motion simulator made by MPRI, a division of L3 Communications, and the only producer of motion-based simulators in the trucking industry. Drivers in both groups were new to trucking and were in Schneider’s CDL program.

Among the two groups, there were measurable improvements – albeit small – in the success rate of drivers whose training included simulators. “In the simulator group, roughly 85 percent of drivers graduated,” Osterberg says. “Only 77 percent graduated with the control group.” That was just in phase one of Schneider National’s training program. As the trainees matured into over-the-road drivers, the success and retention rates continued to improve. Eighteen percent more drivers in the simulator group made it all the way through the training process to become Schneider drivers.

“One of the prime reasons for turnover in the first 90 days is anxiety,” Osterberg says. “Drivers get out on their own for the first time, and the job is stressful. They hit overload and quit. We had roughly 10 percent better retention with drivers trained in the simulation group during the first 90 days. If we can retain drivers after 90 days, we can keep them around for a long time.”

The retention alone might justify the $5 million tab for a trucking company that must hire hundreds of drivers each week. But the simulation training not only helped with retention, it improved driver performance as well. The group of drivers who trained on the simulator showed a modest decrease in the number of reportable and preventable accidents. The same group also showed an important decrease where it counts the most: In accidents with an exposure greater than $15,000, the simulator group had 30 percent fewer accidents.

“There were 1,200 drivers in this pilot program,” Osterberg says. “The results were statistically significant.”

While Schneider has measured the impact on new drivers, Bison Transport -which has been using a simulator since 2002 – has studied the impact its simulators have on training of current drivers. David Klassen, manager of driver development for the Winnipeg, Manitoba-based company’s 1,100 truckers, says Bison looked at the number of preventable accidents for a group of 474 drivers before and after they had been through driving training that included time on the simulator. Before the training, the group averaged 432 days between crashes. Afterward, the gap increased to 793 days.

Klassen admits the group of drivers could have been responding to other training elements, weather conditions could have been milder in the second time period – or the group could have gotten lucky. “You have to take the numbers with a grain of salt,” Klassen says. “But what it indicates to us is the numbers are trending in the right direction.”

Training for everyone
Still, the experience of Bison Transport and Schneider National is catching the attention of other large carriers. “Over the last three years, we’ve doubled the number of simulators we’ve fielded,” says Jim Naatz, vice president of sales for MPRI. “The larger carriers in the truckload market already have integrated training programs and infrastructure to take advantage of simulators. By end of year, we expect to have eight of the top 10 truckload carriers as our customers.”

Large carriers aren’t the only ones interested. A consortium of medium-sized and small carriers in Louisiana put together a $1.5 million grant to outfit a tractor-trailer with a mobile classroom and four simulators. The group, which includes Ace Transportation, rotates the mobile simulator between its companies weekly and customizes training: A couple of the carriers haul heavy flatbed, while another pulls liquid bulk trailers. The training is designed to improve the skills of professional truck drivers in areas such as shifting techniques, fuel management, emergency maneuvers and speed and space management.

Although not a small carrier, Dart Transit also bought a mobile simulator – one originally owned by the Texas Motor Truck Association – and leases it out to other carriers for training. “It’s not really a profit center for us,” says Elaine Briles, director of safety, compliance and fleet services for Eagan, Minn.-based Dart. “We let competitors, leased carriers, anyone rent it from us for cost.”

When TMTA owned the simulator – a motion-based Mark II made by MPRI – Dart would lease it from TMTA. At a cost of more than $1 million in 2002, the mobile simulator was more than most carriers wanted to spend on the technology.

Now, however, the price for a top-of-the-line Mark III simulator and its cheaper fixed-base simulator, the TranSim VS III, are within reach of more modest carriers – especially if the experience gained in using the simulator reduces accidents.

The training
Simulators are attractive to carriers and trucking schools that train new drivers because they can get students on the road more quickly – both virtually and literally. With many fleets having to train hundreds of drivers a week just to keep up with turnover demand, simulators give students experience on equipment without leaving the classroom.

“With simulators, we can train more quickly,” says Schneider’s Osterberg. “There’s a limiting factor in training – we only have so many trucks and so many trainers. We have to have drivers out with an instructor running them around the training yard. It used to take a day and a half to get a driver out on the road. Now we can do that in half a day with the simulators. They can demonstrate proficiency out on the street by the end of day one.”

They also are attractive as tools for veteran drivers, whether as part of ongoing training regimens or for remedial lessons after an accident. For the last two years, Superior Bulk Logistics has used Safe-Sim, a PC-based desktop driving simulator made by J.J. Keller (see “Some simulators cost real money