Pilots have used flight simulators for years to increase skill, ensure safety, and test different situations. Now, thanks to a new computer program, school bus drivers in Raleigh, N.C., will be able to do the same.

Software originally designed for the state Highway Patrol has been modified to allow school bus drivers in the Wake County Public School System (K-12, enr. 90,000) to train with a 3-D driving simulator.

The simulator, which incorporates SAS Institute’s Profiler software and Elumens Corp.’s VisionStation viewing dome, was presented Dec. 4 to Bill McNeal, superintendent of the Wake County public schools.

The simulator creates an environment that closely resembles situations encountered by bus drivers. SAS chief executive Jim Goodnight explained at a news conference that the Profiler technology uses video footage to provide a realistic feeling of movement.

“This was filmed at the North Carolina Highway Patrol training facility in Garner,” said Phil Abbot, of SAS. “One of the advantages of video reality is that we provide a very realistic environment. It’s based on film. To create this product, we actually put cameras in a car on this test track and filmed the environment. Then, other objects are added by the computer.”

Elumens chief executive Mike Odell said the VisionStation projection system adds to the reality of the training.

“The VisionStation’s lens is capable of a 180-degree field of view, which will really get you immersed and get you into the information,” said Odell. “Our customers tell us this is about as realistic as you can get.”

The project’s ultimate goal is to save lives, SAS project manager Danny Wright said at the news conference. “It [can save] the lives of the driver, the passengers, and the other people on the road. We do that by assessing the affects of stress, distraction, and divided attention on the field of view.”

Wyatt Currin, director of transportation for Wake County schools, explained that the device is actually a 3-D dome screen, and the driver sits in it. “There’s a steering wheel, a gas pedal, a brake pedal,” he said.

There are four different tests that drivers take, Currin said. “Stage one is the simplest. There’s a car in front of you, and you have to drive down a winding road. If the car in front of you puts on its brake lights, you have to touch a button that indicates that you saw it stopping,” he said.

Stage two is more complicated. The speed has increased, and drivers might encounter some obstacles, like a deer in the road.

Stage three incorporates the noise of a school bus. “When SAS was adapting the system for school, we actually had a performing arts group go in and we taped them making noise,” said Currin. “At that level, there may be cars coming into your lane. You have to take evasive actions to avoid a collision.”

The fourth level of the simulation is the most difficult for drivers to navigate.

“In the fourth level, the speed has picked up, there are more cars around you, there are pedestrians, and you have to react very quickly to the situations around you,” said Currin.

“Drivers will actually be graded on how they deal with a fight on the bus, while navigating the driving obstacles. A student has been recorded yelling the word, ‘Fight!’ and the driver has to mash a button saying they have recognized the problem.”

Those who have tested the simulator say it is startlingly realistic.

“You can actually get motion sickness while you’re in the dome. That’s how real it is. You can hear the brakes squealing when you go around curves,” said Currin. “The simulator really checks your reactions to things.”

Bill Poston, spokesman for Wake County schools, agreed. “It’s not just a driving test. It measures the driver’s ability to deal with stress.”

At the end of the test, each driver is evaluated and given a computer printout that says what the driver’s weaknesses are. For instance, the program can tell evaluators whether more accidents occur on the driver’s right or left side, Currin explained.

In Wake County’s announcement to the press, school officials brought in a driver to demonstrate the program.

“What we found was that he paid the most attention to the right and the left, but he tended to have problems with things directly in front of him. He was always looking in his mirrors, at the kids and the surroundings,” said Currin.

Wake County transportation officials were scheduled to receive the system the first week in December, and they were set to begin using it to evaluate drivers soon thereafter.

“We plan to bring in drivers with three, four, or five years of experience first. At that stage they have sometimes become complacent and they tend to have more problems,” explained Currin.

“Also, if a bus accident does occur, that driver will have to come to a special meeting, and we’ll ask [the driver] to do the simulator to assess what [his or her] weaknesses are,” he said.

The district plans to track the results of the simulations.

“Once we have everyone come in and do the simulator once, the results will show their weaknesses. Then we’ll bring them back three or four weeks later and see how they’ve improved,” said Currin.

Wake County transportation officials also plan to use the simulator when screening new drivers. After drivers apply for a job, district officials will have them do all their written work, and then let them use the bus simulator before starting them on actual road work, Currin explained.

Bus simulators are a new technology for schools, and not inexpensive. According to the district, Wake County is piloting the program for free.

But, according to Currin, the combined donation to the district is worth $20,000, not including the computer or the software.

“I’m so excited. It will be great for our drivers,” he added.


Wake County Public School System

SAS Institute Inc.

Elumens Corp.