Simulator lets semi drivers train for Michigan’s ice and snow

Posted at 2:30 PM, Dec 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-17 14:30:08-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The diesel rumbles to life and the windshield shakes from the engine vibration. Underfoot, two identical pedals look and feel weird, but the right one is the accelerator and the left one is the brake. Through the windshield, snow falls and the highway is winter white. Traffic moves around and past the rig as it heads down the ramp.

As the highway rolls past, there’s a very real feeling of motion. And when the rig begins to slide on the ice, what feeling of control present a moment ago is gone.

“You see, you’re starting to counter-steer, very good.”

The trailer begins to swing from side to side. “Now you’re overdoing it.”

In moments, the semi is jack-knifed into a snow bank.

End of simulation.

“Anybody who goes into a curve on snow and ice at a speed that is inappropriate for the conditions is going to find themselves off the pavement pretty quickly,” remarks Chuck Simmons, without a trace of judgment in his voice. “It’s easy to make mistakes, and it can be easy to get yourself in trouble very, very quickly.”

In my defense, we had agreed that I could deliberately crash the “rig” to see what happens when things go wrong on a wintery highway, all in the name of education.

The Michigan Center for Truck Safety has been providing driving simulations to professional drivers for about eight years now, but the updated computer simulation has only been in play for about a year, says Simmons, safety management specialist with the center.

“We have many different programs,” he notes. “All of them are designed to help reduce highway crashes by providing educational opportunities to truck drivers and to trucking companies.”

There are not many jack-knife incidents when the professionals strap into the simulator. “A lot of the people who come through here have been driving for 25, 35, 40 years even, and they come out of it with a little bit of a different perspective on what it takes to do the job.”

The lessons reinforced in the simulation are the same for big rigs and little cars: keep your speed down, driving for conditions, and make adjustments for changing conditions.

“Over-confidence and driving too fast for conditions, and not leaving enough following distance” are the biggest problems semi drivers face, Simmons says. But drivers appreciate the safety lessons. “Truck drivers always want to be safe, because, if you think about it, just like any other vehicle driver they want to make it home at the end of the day.”

The Michigan Center for Truck Safety is funded through a combination of truck registration fees, the Michigan Truck Safety Commission and the Office of Highway Safety Planning, a division of the Michigan State Police. The center doesn’t charge drivers and trucking companies anything.

And the top tip for drivers of cars and SUVs relating to those 70-foot monsters we share the road with? It might surprise you.

“When you’re passing a truck on the highway, leave at least two or three truck lengths before you come back into the lane in front of that truck.”

Because if a semi is too close to you when you have to stop quickly, you’ll find the real world isn’t as forgiving as a driving simulator.