Safe on Arrival

Driving is a prime cause of U.S. occupational deaths. A virtual simulator intends to foster safer driving.

Some learn by listening, others by doing. Everyone learns from experience. But when we're learning defensive driving, that experience comes at the cost of increased risk because it requires going out into the real world to practice classroom-taught lessons.

To better illustrate this, Bob Davis, CEO and president of Virtual Driver Interactive, described an event in his life that many drivers have experienced in some fashion. "I was going down the 680 highway, and a lawn chair had fallen off a gardening truck. And I sort of maneuvered around it, no big deal. But it was kind of a sudden move, and I thought, 'I wonder how you get prepared to do that?' I mean, I did it fine, but I was never taught to do it."

This experience, Davis said, began him thinking about how people pick up driving skills from dangerous experience, which posed the question: What if there was a way to get that experience without actually putting the driver at risk? Davis turned for an answer to something he knew best, technology. "I started doing a little research and talked to different gaming companies. I talked to some engineering people that I knew about how to get started, and they all told me that the simulation companies were the ones that could build mathematically accurate models, and I should start with them. Specifically, I'd probably have to go to military simulation," he said.

Davis found a company called Raydon Corp., which is headquartered in Daytona Beach, Fla., and uses its technology in high-end military training simulators for Abrams A-1 tanks, convoy training, and Humvees. Davis put this to use in creating the VDI Virtual Trainer, but even in the development phase he understood that technology expertise had to be matched with defensive driving expertise. To ensure the best possible curriculum, he employed the assistance of the National Safety Council, which incorporated its renowned NSC DDC 6/8 defensive driving course into the simulator. While this course has been taught in classrooms for decades, Davis saw many drawbacks to that method. "Classroom training for adults who are experienced drivers is a tough thing because people really believe that they're good drivers. And instructing somebody who's driven for 20 years, putting them in a classroom, talking about following distance, is really not going to sink in," he said. "People [who] go to these courses--at best they're courteous and they listen to you, but you have no idea if they can do the skill."

Virtual Dangers
Davis says the completely self-contained VDI simulators are engineered to eliminate the need for an instructor. To aid in retention, they feature multimedia tools that show drivers graphs, diagrams, and pictures for each lesson while reading everything to the driver. Drivers then take an interactive quiz on the lessons learned. This is where the device truly serves its intended purpose, as the simulator allows users to drive through virtual scenarios that are often too dangerous to do in real life.

"We put emergency vehicles on the road that come up behind you; we have people that tailgate, and you have to demonstrate that you know how to deal with aggressive drivers," he said. "We have motorcyclists that come across the line, we have people that run stop signs, we have people that run red lights. So we throw it all at people in a way that is unexpected enough to get a true reaction on what the driver would have done."

While engaged in the simulation, drivers are continually evaluated on more than 80 criteria including speed control, turns, lane changes, following distance, mirror usage, seat belt usage, and more by VDI's proprietary Performance Assessment Scoring System (P.A.S.S.). An automatic lesson failure results if the driver fails to buckle up. With each lesson, different conditions also can be set that require drivers to adjust their driving habits accordingly, such as daytime, dusk, or nighttime; medium or light rain; thunderstorms; snow; heavy snow; and fog in any combination. Although it is not intended to be vehicle-specific, Davis said certain accommodations can be made from the start of the lesson to ensure driver lessons are learned from the right type of vehicle, such as a passenger vehicle versus a delivery van. At the end of each lesson, a comprehensive report is produced for each driver.

One added benefit the simulation features that can't be duplicated in real life are the system's bright green and red "virtual cues," which teach things such as safe following distances. "Even with experienced people, when you talk about following distance [and staying] three seconds behind, everybody's like, 'I don't really get that. I don't know what three seconds looks like,' " he said. "So we show people when they're actually driving, if this thing is green, that's a safe distance. If this thing turns red, you're too close. And people say, 'Oh, I get it.' " The virtual cues automatically adjust for the different condition settings.

Davis emphasized the simulator is intended to teach good defensive driver decisions, not commercial or vehicle-specific training--and there are many very good vehicle-specific simulators available. He said a state highway patrol officer called recently to inquire about his product. Davis explained that his simulator doesn't provide pursuit training. "No, I know that. Those things already exist," the officer replied. "We already have pursuit simulators for how to chase bad guys; they cost $150,000 each and we use those. But since most states have stopped driver's ed in schools, the cadets that come in, they're just not good drivers, period. We can't teach them to be good law enforcement officials with pursuit until they learn how to be the driver first."

Buying simulators may cost from $150,000 to $300,000, but the VDI simulator is available only as a rental model for about $3,000 per month, Davis said. "That puts the responsibility for the success of it on us, the vendor, because at the moment we're not effective, at the moment we're not helping them, customers can say, 'Pick this thing up,' and we're done," he said. This business model also ensures customers always have the latest hardware and software offering available.

The simulator is available in several formats, from a fully featured stand-alone unit to a desktop setup.

This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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