DALLAS — In an area that gets a mere 3 inches of snow a year, Dallas snowplow drivers live in fear of major winter storms like the one that crippled their city almost two years ago, the week before it was to host the Super Bowl.
The drivers aren't the only worried ones. So highway officials in at least nine states are using a sophisticated simulator to give plow drivers a chance to practice snow removal in any weather. It works like a video game, re-creating slick pavement, poor visibility and even children or animals bolting across the road. In a virtual collision, drivers hear crashing noises and see a cracked windshield.
Because Dallas road crews don't drive plows very often, “we have to practice a lot more,” said Eric Hemphill, maintenance director for the North Texas Toll Authority, which manages 850 miles of roads in and around Dallas and Fort Worth. “We don't have that luxury — or that pressure.”
It's almost an annual tradition for a few inches of snow to shut down warm-weather cities as winter-hardened Northerners laugh. Dallas and other major population centers are trying to shed that reputation, but since snow comes so rarely, they can't justify elaborate, expensive preparations in an era of tight budgets.
The last massive snowstorm in North Texas remains a black eye for local government. When more than 5 inches of snow fell back in 2011, many highways went unplowed, and thousands of football fans got stranded before the big game. The toll authority was forced to use construction road graders to clear impassable roads.
“The Super Bowl that everybody talks about really opened our eyes,” Hemphill said. “We had to put another tool in our toolbox.”
The toll authority spent about $84,000 on nine snowplow blades that attach to the front of regular dump trucks. Then it hired a subsidiary of New York-based L-3 Communications to help with training by putting on its snowplow simulation.
The simulator has three video screens, a steering wheel and a switch for the plow blade. Earlier this month, a handful of toll road drivers tried it out, tracing the curves of a virtual road designed to make them slip. Imaginary deer ran out and almost without exception got hit by drivers who weren't able to avoid them. Each time, the word “COLLISION” popped up in red letters.
On a recent sunny morning with temperatures in the 50s, Santiago Peralta got into the driver's seat of one of the simulators. He turned the ignition and pressed down on the gas, following a truck down a snowy road. As he pushed the accelerator, the arrow of his on-screen speedometer moved farther to the right.
Then, without warning, a child dashed onto the roadway. Peralta wasn't able to swerve in time. Later, he laughed, saying he had driven in snow before and knew not to use the gas nearly that much.
“It's a little bit different than the real deal,” he said.
The Texas Department of Public Safety also uses the simulator in its local district offices, as do some agencies in states with generally mild winters such as Virginia and Kentucky. It's also used in Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, Maine, Utah and Oregon, L-3 Senior Training Manager George Perez said.
“The districts swear by it and say it makes a lot of difference, especially since most of our workers face snow and ice conditions infrequently,” Texas DPS spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said.
Across the South, cities also use a variety of other methods to train snow-removal crews. Some hold snowplow “rodeos” that include obstacle courses and a series of questions on maintenance and proper use. Others visit departments in the North to learn from snow veterans.