Recently, “Shelly” was driving southbound on highway 101 in Phoenix when traffic came to an abrupt halt in front of her. This was nothing out of the ordinary given that it was rush hour, but what did catch Shelly’s eye was the vehicle coming up behind her at a high rate of speed without showing any signs of slowing. She realized that an impact was inevitable. She checked the lane to her right, saw that it was clear, and turned her steering wheel that direction while simultaneously releasing the brake pedal in an effort to minimize force.
Although the impact was still severe—the reckless driver struck the rear of her car at over 50 mph—her quick decisions allowed some of the collision force to be deflected and prevented Shelly’s vehicle from being thrust into the back of the car in front of her. Because of her quick thinking, she walked away with only minor bruises. So why did Shelly think to make such moves? Because she’d practiced the exact scenario in an advanced driving simulation during her driver training.
Driving simulation has been around for some time now, but the basic nature of driving a vehicle has not changed. In my work with DrivingMBA, a driving simulation training company for teens and fleet drivers based in Scottsdale, Ariz., I’ve repeatedly seen seasoned fleet and public safety drivers make the same mistakes as new teen drivers when faced with a hazard and deciding a course of action. A driving simulator should never be used as a substitute for actual behind-the-wheel training, but it does provide collateral training with many solid benefits that should be considered when your agency is developing driver training for your EMS providers. Here are five of those benefits.
Practicing the Unpracticeable
The first benefit of a driving simulator is that students can be exposed to extremely dangerous driving conditions in a realistic, virtual environment that would be far too hazardous to practice in real life. Scenarios like head-on collision avoidance, intersection and angle crash avoidance, animals entering the roadway and many other real-life causes of crashes can be presented to the student in a manner that allows them to learn strategies to avoid a collision or at least minimize the damage and injuries. For safety, these types of scenarios can be practiced only in a virtual environment. They allow for the implications of positive and negative decision processes to be played out in their entirety, which significantly strengthens the learning curve.
Build It & They Will Come
A second benefit to driving simulation software is that it may allow you to design your own scenario. Today’s simulators are extremely powerful and allow you to control weather, traffic, pedestrians, wildlife, other vehicles and even design “if this, then that” situations.
Example scenario: If a student drives the EMS rig down a virtual street at the speed limit, traffic entering from side streets and driveways will yield. However, if they exceed the posted speed, that virtual traffic will pull out in front of the student’s vehicle, causing a hazard. Example 2: Does your area have a lot of intersection crashes in heavy urban traffic? You can design a scenario that immerses students in exactly that situation, where they’re free to make mistakes without fatal consequences, learn and, hopefully, avoid the same thing in real life. These are simple examples of the vast power of simulation software. The point: Simulators allow you to carefully design hazardous driving situations that accurately reflect what your EMS drivers face in the field every day.
Same as It Ever Was
A third benefit of driving simulators is that every student gets the same experience. In real life, vehicles are subject to tire, brake, engine and environmental conditions that may affect the consistency of training. This isn’t the case in a driving simulator. Simulators are housed inside an environmentally controlled area, such as a classroom, and each scenario is specifically programmed, which ensures that every student will face the exact same decision process. Training can be conducted at any time of day, regardless of outside weather or lighting conditions. These factors create a repeatable training regimen that’s easy to track and document, and they eliminate the possibility for underperforming students to place blame on the training environment.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
A fourth benefit is that everything each student does behind the wheel during a scenario is recorded. Regardless of whether a student makes a good decision, the entire incident can be replayed from multiple angles for analysis and discussion, if needed. This is especially important when students make an incorrect decision that leads to catastrophic results. During replay, the instructor can go through the sequence of events while querying the student on what motivated them to make their decisions, as well as discuss alternative courses of action.
After this process, the student can then repeat the scenario, make the right decision the second time through, and achieve a positive result. This “fail-forward” instruction process is valuable because it provides neural mapping in the student’s brain that hopefully will trigger proper actions in real life when faced with a similar situation. Shelly’s true story featured at the beginning of this article is a perfect example. When she was struck from behind in the virtual scenario, she did nothing to mitigate the situation because she had no reference point.
However, after analysis and subsequent positive decision processes to the same scenario, Shelly mapped a solution strategy in her brain that kicked in when she was faced with the real thing. The end result of Shelly walking away from a 55–60 mph impact collision with minor bruising demonstrates the power of recording and analyzing driving scenarios in a virtual environment.
Fly on a Wall
Although many more benefits to driving simulation exist, the last one I will cover is the ability for instructors and others, even students, to watch how another student performs when they are faced with a virtual driving hazard. Students will invariably bring their real-world driving habits into the virtual world. Because the experience is so realistic, students typically let their guards down and drive the virtual vehicle much like they drive in real life. For example, if a student is rough with the driving simulator, chances are they’re the same in real life. If they forget to reach for the seat belt, it might be something instructors and risk managers should know. Discovering these types of behaviors during training provides a perfect opportunity to witness and track potential hazardous driving behaviors, such as poor steering, unnecessary risk taking or not wearing a seat belt. Driving a virtual vehicle in an immersive environment is every bit as taxing as driving a real vehicle, sometimes even more so when you consider the types of hazards that are presented.
Because of this, physiological responses like breathing, perspiration, heart rate and panic, are commonly consistent with real-world encounters. These responses are part of the normal human reaction in a life-threatening situation, so observing them in a virtual environment allows instructors to evaluate a student’s response and make the students more aware. Other students can also benefit from observing how their peers react in the same scenario that they faced. This increases learning saturation and also allows students to see that there may be more than one way to positively resolve a hazardous driving situation.
Shelly most likely survived because of her training on the simulator, and your EMS drivers can experience similar benefits by spending time behind the virtual wheel. As the benefits above point out, simulation training, in conjunction with real-world, driver training can provide a two-pronged strategy that goes a long way in keeping your EMS drivers, crews and patients safe on the roadways.