snowplowImagine leaving your house in the wee hours of the morning to be the first driver on a snow-packed road in the most treacherous conditions. Such is the life of a snowplow operator. These drivers’ jobs can be extremely stressful as they operate several plows and snow spreaders simultaneously while avoiding inherent roadway hazards. Unfortunately, few opportunities exist to train snowplow operators in real-world snowy conditions because by the time the ideal training conditions exist, there’s plowing to do and no extra time to train new operators or teach new skills to experienced operators.

Long used for pilot and other types of operator training, simulators are a promising new option for training snowplow operators for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) who are responsible for plowing federal and state roads in Illinois. The snowplow simulator uses a realistic cab, dimensions, scenery, and sounds to provide an authentic experience of snow plowing. The simulators assess how drivers would react to real-life situations that are difficult or costly to replicate.

Evaluating the effectiveness of this simulation training was the subject of a recently completed study by the ICT. IDOT had previously identified the simulation training as having the potential to enhance safety, reduce traffic accidents and property damage, increase driver efficiency through decreased maintenance costs and a reduction in fuel consumption, allow for training in the off-season, and reduce vehicle operation costs including wear and tear from training activities. All of these effects could provide significant cost savings for the state of Illinois.

The simulator training is part of an overall operator training curriculum that includes lecture and computer-based training. The training emphasizes the decision-making processes and risk management while driving and plowing. Eighty snowplow drivers from across the state attended training in three locations, including Bloomington, in late 2009.  At the end of the session, the drivers took a final simulator assessment by driving approximately 1.45 miles they had not previously seen. The simulator provides an overall score out of 100 and points out their violations, such as space management, speed management, and turning, during the course.

The principal investigator for the ICT study, Tom O’Rourke, attended several of the training classes to evaluate the training methods and to administer a questionnaire to the operators. He found the training to be a good blend of teaching methods by well-qualified instructors, and his survey results showed that almost all drivers thought the simulations were useful and realistic for training objectives.

In early 2010, after the snow season, O’Rourke conducted a follow-up survey and re-assessed the training using information about accidents and damaged vehicles. He noted several interesting results such as no differences in driver performance between those taking and not taking the simulation training nor were there differences in evaluating the training by age of driver.

O’Rourke notes that per capita driver cost for conventional behind-the-wheel training is significantly less than simulation training. However, an informed decision on how to proceed will involve IDOT estimating the opportunity costs and benefits, and tradeoffs of conducting simulation training that doesn’t require as much use of IDOT personnel and equipment involved in conducting training, less exposure to accident, injury, or property damage, and the greater flexibility in scheduling simulation training that can be done at most times other than the snow season.

IDOT is evaluating this information to determine if simulation training is continued in subsequent years. The final report is available on the ICT Publications Page.