Thursday, January 12, 2023

Maintenance crews learn a new virtual way to plow highways

By Tina Werner

It was a brisk December morning and the snow was beginning to fall. At our Kent maintenance facility, I loaded into the large snowplow, checked the many gears and buttons to be sure everything was in order, made sure I had on my safety gear and then hit the road. Things were going great! And then a giant cheeseburger appeared.

Say what?

OK, no, I wasn’t actually driving a snowplow. As a communicator and not a member of our maintenance team, you don’t want me handling a big rig like that. For the first time, our agency’s maintenance staff along with a random communicator thrown in to tell the tale, was able to learn what goes into driving a plow before we even set foot in the cab of a truck.

This year we tested a virtual snowplow simulator as part of our training program. Our crews work hard to treat roads and clear snow and ice from highways. It’s no easy task and training is a crucial part of our program – both for current employees and new hires. And we’re always looking to enhance our training opportunities with the latest technology and techniques.

For the first time, our maintenance staff was able to train operating a snowplow using a simulator.

The simulator is kind of a really detailed virtual reality video game where the goal is to safely clear the highways of snow and ice. It allows us to show both new and experienced maintenance workers what goes into operating a vehicle like that from the safety of an office trailer.

Check out this TikTok video we did for a quick look at the simulator training.

Logistically, this is really helpful. Think back to when you were learning to drive. There was always that chance you might do some damage to the vehicle as you were figuring things out. Learning to operate a snowplow is no different, except that there are dozens of gears and switches to learn. One wrong move and you’ve applied the wrong amount of deicer or not lifted a wing plow when you needed to or simply misjudged the size of your vehicle and - DING - a truck is damaged and potentially out of service for repairs. The simulator also allows us to train a lot more people in a shorter amount of time.

What was it like?

Glad you asked.

The training was about two hours long and consisted of classroom and virtual exercises. Participants hopped into a mobile trailer where two operator seats were available.

I am no plow driver but walking into the simulator trailer (which was held behind our maintenance facility out where our team stores trucks and salt for winter) was cool. If I was going to a virtual reality conference with my 5-year-old, I imagine it may feel like this. You sit in a large bucket seat with three large plasma screens in front of you. You’re told to sit down and strap in and wait for instructions by the trainer. The trainer queues you up for the first exercise and you must turn the key in the ignition, release parking brakes and make sure headlights and windshield wipers are on to proceed. The rest of the trailer is dark and other participants stand behind you observing.

The simulator is able to change weather conditions, traffic patterns and throw all kinds of complications at the person who is sitting at the virtual controls.

That’s when things really get interesting. The trainer can change weather environments in the simulator to make operating the plow more challenging. In some cases, visibility was poor and I could not see the roadway at all. In my exercise, the trainer forced an oncoming vehicle to not stop at an intersection and I had to adjust. We were instructed to use horns to alert other vehicles as it’s more difficult for a plow to stop abruptly than a small sedan, so that’s what I did.

Oh yeah, back to the cheeseburger. The biggest distraction during my exercise was when a text message from “mom” appeared on screen alongside a greasy cheeseburger, blocking most of my view of the road. The trainer reiterated how difficult and unsafe it is to operate any vehicle with distractions in the way. So I ignored mom – sorry mom – and the burger and focused on what I had to do.

The experience put things into perspective how difficult it can be to see from the driver’s seat. Like a video game, there was a level where my front tire blew out and I had to maneuver the plow off the road without hitting a tree or pedestrian during an ice storm. The entire steering column shook and I thought I had broken something. My training partner, who had driven plows for more than 20 years, said the exercise he participated in with a blown out front axle was lifelike – he experienced something similar early in his career. The exercise was eye-opening for me as someone who has zero experience operating a snowplow. Many of my classmates passed with flying colors and said it felt like they were out driving the real thing.

Just like when operating a plow in real life, the simulator may have other vehicles crowd the plow, speed through intersections or can simulate other distractions and hazards.

Saving money by safeguarding employees and costly equipment damage

In all, we had 64 people go through the simulator training. Hiring our training vendor and hosting their simulator trailer for a week cost around $30,000.

Ernie Sims, our Fleet Administrator, says we spend more than $1.2 million a year to repair or replace rigs and other plows that are damaged. Much of the damage has been due to drivers trying to pass our plows or following too closely and crashing into our trucks. Safety is always our main priority – for both our crews and the public – and using the simulator provides a fantastic way for us to train while in a safe environment.

Of course, simulator training isn’t the only way our crews train to operate plows. They also get plenty of time behind the wheel of actual plow trucks, learning how they drive, maneuvering through courses in our maintenance yards and then, of course, taking them out on the road for real-life experience. And while our workers are well-trained, we also need everyone’s help to ensure safety. So be sure you give plows plenty of room, slow down, stay alert and let them help clear the way for you.

The simulator is in a trailer and allows maintenance staff to get instructions before jumping into the driver’s seat.

Future trainings

While I did not pass both exercises and won’t be driving a plow anytime soon, our crews agreed this was a valuable experience. We are exploring other ways we could incorporate a fail-safe learning environment into other departments like future commercial driver’s license trainings or to learn vegetation management techniques.

But when it comes to our snowplow simulator training, our team thinks it was a success.

“We will never be able to simulate the real-thing,” said Jim Andersen, our Winter Training Manager. “But this is pretty darn close and a whole lot safer.”

Did I make operating a snowplow sound interesting? Great! We’re always looking to add great people to our team, and maintenance job openings are available online.


Unknown said...

Does the simulator model our real highways so the workers get used to our highways ahead of time (say Chinook pass)?

WSDOT said...


Thanks for your interest in our pilot simulator training. The current settings with our training vendor for the virtual snowplow simulator are based on real-world conditions, driving difficulties and changing weather conditions. The vendor does not have a road-specific course of Washington State highways, for example, as every training module is intended to replicate various degrees of difficulties and components of operating a plow in varying environments throughout the year. Our crews, however, absolutely get real-work experience behind an the wheel of an actual plow in addition to other drills – so a field trainer could take a crew to Chinook Pass to get the feel of what highway may feel like. We have and will continue to use this as a supplement to our training program moving forward.


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