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High-Tech Driving Simulator Debuts in W.V.

JEMS.com Editor s Note: For more coverage on safety in EMS, check out the April JEMS article The Risky Side of Response.

CHARLESTON, W.V. -- Sheriff Mike Rutherford can drive a police cruiser into a wall at 90 mph if he wants to and suffer no permanent ill effects. If it s snowing, no one will sue if he mows down people, dogs, cows or skunks.

Good thing it s not a real car. Thanks to the Kanawha County Sheriff s Department s new electronic driving simulator, deputies and other emergency responders can practice driving in dangerous situations without ever actually putting wheels to pavement.

You go to the police academy and they teach you to shoot, said Chief Deputy Johnny Rutherford. They teach you how to arrest people. But do they teach you when you come to a stop sign to look right and to look left? There are more police officers killed in car accidents each year than are ever shot.

According to the sheriff, 60 percent of the officers killed in the line of duty across the country die in car accidents. Mike Rutherford said deputies were involved in 15 wrecks last year and 12 so far this year.

Luckily, we didn t have anybody seriously injured, he said.

But if deputies can learn defensive driving skills on a simulator, the number of accidents on the streets could be brought down, the sheriff hopes.

We ve already paid for the machine if we can prevent two or three accidents, Mike Rutherford said.

The $104,000 driving simulator features the seat, steering wheel and pedals from a real car coupled with sophisticated computers that mimic the reactions of an actual vehicle. Three flat-screen monitors provide a view ahead and on both sides, just like a real car.

Turn the key in the ignition and the engine coughs to life. Look in the rear and side view mirrors and the view is just like what would be seen on the street. Hit the accelerator too hard and you ll go careening into a parked car.

When you crash, the windshield shatters, the sheriff said. It s kind of cool.

The driving simulator can be programmed to handle like any number of police cars, an ambulance or a city bus.

Mike Rutherford said county officials plan to train about 125 employees in the sheriff s department on the simulator, about 150 from the county ambulance authority and about 80 Kanawha Regional Transportation Authority drivers on the device within the next few months. Then he hopes to offer the simulator to other county agencies and local police departments.

The device can simulate driving in varying degrees of rain and snow, fog and wind, day or night. Turn the wheel too hard in a driving snowstorm and you ll end up in someone s yard, as the sheriff discovered Tuesday when the device made its debut.

Instructors can program the device to simulate brake failures, headlight failures, tire blowouts or other unforeseen hazards at will.

The implications are obvious. We talk all the time about how you control a front-wheel blowout, said instructor Larry Self. But how do you teach it? How do you practice it?

Practicing such a scenario in a real car would be dangerous. It s a piece of cake in the simulator, where the electronic car acts just like the real thing.

The simulator can be programmed to mimic interstate driving, city driving or country driving and present scenarios ranging from accident scenes to high-speed car chases. Deputies can even film real trips and input them into the computer so people can practice driving on local roads and streets.

Any number of hazards can also be programmed into the machine. Would-be road hounds can plow into trees, mailboxes, signs and other cars. Unwary drivers can run over people, cows or skunks. And there s no blood or glass to clean up; just the jeers of fellow officers.

Once they get the hang of it, driving the simulator is amazingly realistic.

If you get in a scenario where you re on rural roads and get in a pursuit, you have to be careful, Johnny Rutherford said. It will make you woozy.

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