Greg Lacroix gripped the wheel tightly as his snowplow careened over a curb and on to a sidewalk.
“Cut it. Cut it. Cut it. Cut it!” David Welch said. “You’re now in somebody’s front yard. You’re officially in somebody’s front yard.”
A few moments later, after Lacroix and the plow found their way back to the snow-covered street, Welch spotted another potential hazard.
“Now he’s driving an old El Camino,” he said, pointing to an approaching vehicle. “That ought to tell you that you ought to watch out.”
Luckily for Lacroix, the road, the traffic, the snow and the plow he was driving all were simulated. Welch is a senior training specialist with L-3 Communications’ simulation team.
While Saturday’s brief snow and ice storm brought a reminder of the pending threat of winter weather, City of Rockville snowplow drivers on Thursday took a proactive approach to the job that likely lies ahead.
Strapped into a life-sized simulator in a trailer parked in front of the , Lacroix and 27 other city plow drivers each completed a two-hour snowplow training course.
The city received a $9,000 grant for the course from the Local Government Insurance Trust, which provides the city’s Department of Public Works insurance for property, vehicle and liability claims by citizens.
“We want to reduce the cost of claims, vehicle accidents, property incidents—tearing up mailboxes,” said Mark Godette, a safety and risk manager with the city’s Human Resources Department.
It’s the first time the city has offered this kind of training to its drivers, Godette said.
It’s not every day that Rockville sees snow. With the training, when snow falls, drivers are more familiar with how to operate the plows more safely and efficiently, Godette said.
“If I can take this [training], and I jump behind the wheel of a truck, I can move and have a greater understanding,” he said.
The course includes instructor-led training, “e-learning” on a laptop and time on the snowplow simulator.
The simulation makes things fun. Research shows that it also helps drivers learn the lessons, Welch said.
“People tend to remember what they enjoy doing,” he said. “It’s kind of like the old saying ‘C’mon on in and have fun and if you’re not careful you might learn something.’”
Other clients include the Maryland and Virginia departments of transportation, Welch said.
The simulators offer lifelike sights and sounds, through a 42-inch high-definition plasma screen that refreshes as quickly as the human eye.
Lacroix, a snowplow operator with the city for three-and-a-half years, said that the simulator is good for drivers with limited experience operating a plow in heavy snow.
“They make it look so real,” Lacroix said. “Everything that happens in the video [simulation], that’s real life. You can expect them. You see people in the streets in cars. The cars don’t stop. They want to follow you, trying to cut you off.”
One thing about the simulation is unrealistic, Don Bowman, who has been driving a plow for three years, told Welch. Drivers aren’t as likely to leave a road they know.
“We know our routes,” Bowman said. “We know the sidewalk. We know where everything is.”
Based in Salt Lake City, L-3’s simulation group began snowplow training six years ago. A University of Utah study found that drivers who take the training course are less likely to have a crash, Welch said. If you’re a municipal or state government, “that’s money in your pocket,” he said.
The training helps Rockville reduce insurance costs, as well as costs related to fuel efficiency by teaching drivers how to operate plows in a more fuel-efficient manner, Godette said.
“It’s a win-win situation for both of us,” he said. “We can reduce the number of accidents and property damage. We can reduce the cost of our premiums.”