Regardless of how long a driver has been on the road, unexpected issues are sure to arise. Even drivers with the most experience may not be fully equipped to handle split-second decision-making, from maneuvering a truck with a blown-out tire to dodging a child who darts into the street. But thanks to steadily advancing training technologies, drivers can now get those critical experiences without ever having to step foot out of the station.
Commercial driving simulators, now available for a range of truck types, can put a driver in nearly any road situation to provide both real-time feedback and data for ongoing improvement. It’s a piece of technology waste fleets are beginning to put to use, and for a good reason—it has the potential to save not just time and money, but also lives.
“Some of our customers have seen anywhere from a 30 to 60 percent crash rate reduction with the simulator training,” says Matt Derby, the marketing manager for L3 Driver Training Solutions, a branch of the New York-based L3 Technologies that supplies driving simulators and training to haulers. “I’d rather have somebody fail and learn 100 times in here and get it right than even one time out on the road with an actual vehicle where people are getting hurt or equipment’s getting damaged.”
In 2017, the fatal incident rate for waste collection workers was 10 times higher than the industry average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In an industry that remains the fifth deadliest in the U.S., fleet managers looking to train drivers efficiently while minimizing damages and injuries may find a solution in simulation.
Modern driving simulators are stunningly realistic, some comparable to an amped-up, immersive version of Grand Theft Auto complete with hypersensitive reactions to every movement. The latest simulators mirror nearly every piece of equipment present in a truck cab, including a driving seat, force-loaded steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedals, a clutch and shifter for multi-geared transmissions, various gauges, and even heating and air conditioning controls. Some include three-panel setups with a screen on each to give drivers a 180-degree field of vision not only of the road in front of them, but also of their peripheral views through two door windows and simulated side mirrors. In addition to the realistic cab, managers can program specific truck specs, like height and weight, into the simulators so they react to each movement the same way a real truck would.
The technical setup prepares drivers for the seemingly infinite number of scenarios they can encounter during the simulation. Those in charge of the training can integrate a number of challenges into the course: navigating a steep, gravelly hill in a downpour without tipping the truck; moving through crowded city streets on a snowy evening; steering around people that dash into the street; even maneuvering a fully loaded truck with a popped tire quickly off the highway. Fleet managers can program every detail into the course, down to the individuals standing on street corners. Drivers feel every bump, curb and puddle along the way.
“It’s about building up those positive habits behind the wheel and really providing an experiential training environment,” Derby says.
The mighty customization potential results in a targeted training tool that can improve both skill and efficiency. Fleet managers who conduct regular safety training can use simulators to home in on specific skills or route challenges. One session, for example, may focus on space and speed management, while another may focus on defensive driving. Most simulators offer a wealth of data, allowing managers to monitor speed, stopping distances, performance in key areas and more, which can help them target and improve on problem areas for individual employees.
Simulators also offer a consistent training option that doesn’t require having to pull every driver into a room at once. “Obviously most of your fleet, they need to be out on the road doing routes ... and you don’t want to take up too much of their time. So it’s a great tool for being able to rotate through training throughout the year, and it’s a lot more effective at assessing how safe drivers are out there,” Derby says.
Training for all skill sets
Simulators can be an effective training tool for all employees, no matter their experience level. Fleet managers can use the simulator to screen new drivers for a baseline measurement of their driving capabilities. They can also use it as a pre-screening tool when conducting interviews and deciding who to hire.
Along with regular targeted training for employees, the technology can even be used to turn negative situations into learning experiences. If a driver gets into an accident on the road, fleet managers can completely recreate the scenario in the simulator to go over best practices and how the incident could have been avoided. The course can become a teaching tool not just for the driver involved, but also for the entire fleet, Derby says.
Even veteran drivers can benefit from regular training with a simulator. Derby says when L3 representatives conduct training sessions at customer facilities, drivers of all abilities walk away learning something, from new hires to seasoned drivers. “You may have a veteran driver out there that’s been on the road for 30 years. They may think they’re hot stuff ... but I guarantee you there’s always something that we can throw at million-mile drivers that they haven’t [seen yet]” Derby says.
Regular training with the simulator can result in major safety improvements. The technology exposes drivers to a string of dangerous situations that would be near impossible to stage in real life without putting them in harm’s way. Repeat exposure to these situations can help the driver internalize and better handle them out on the road, leading to a reduction in incidents. Even for those uncontrollable situations, Derby says simulation training can often help lessen the impact.
“There’re situations out there where the driver won’t have complete control. But the big thing is, can you minimize it? Can you bring down the severity of it so it doesn’t cost as much?” Derby says.
While the technology isn’t cheap—L3’s simulators, for example, start at more than $100,000 a piece to purchase without any additional add-ons—the resulting safety improvements could reap major financial savings. Beyond the savings earned by maintaining safe employees and minimizing their downtime, training on simulators can also be easier on equipment. Fewer accidents mean fewer repairs for trucks. Training on the simulator can even result in employees driving more fuel-consciously if efficiency in that area is emphasized during training.
If an employee is involved in an accident that results in litigation, simulation training can even be a major benefit in court. Derby says companies can use the simulator’s training records in their defense to point to the measures they’ve taken to avoid collisions, which could potentially help diminish sanctions.
As simulation technology becomes more mainstream and developed for niche markets, its presence in the waste management sphere is sure to pick up. When used in combination with in-person training sessions and on-the-road experience, driving simulators can take collection safety to the next level.
The author is the assistant editor for Waste Today magazine and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.