Snowplow simulator offers rare chance to practice

It works like a video game, re-creating slick pavement, poor visibility and even children or animals bolting across the road.
By NOMAAN MERCHANT Published: December 5, 2012

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.