Driver’s education students at a Pennsylvania high school are test-driving a sophisticated simulator that enables them to practice driving a car in difficult conditions before heading into traffic, much like a fighter pilot might use a flight simulator to learn evasive action before taking to the air.

If the program proves successful, it could change the way schools offer driver’s-ed instruction.

In a pilot program, Mt. Lebanon High School has had 120 students use the simulator, which is temporarily housed in a trailer outside the school.

“We’re still evaluating the value of this for our students,” said George Wilson, assistant superintendent. “The kids seem pretty excited, and that alone is a plus.”

The simulator—which consists of the front of a Ford Crown Victoria—lets students feel the vibrations of the road through the seat and the steering wheel as they drive.

“It’s the real cockpit of a car with a dashboard, lights, and steering wheel,” said Jim Dowdell, founder and chief executive of SafeDrive Technologies, the Pittsburgh-based company that makes the driving simulator. “It’s all engineered to act and react just like what a car would really feel like on the road.”

The entire dashboard window is a video screen that displays the road. The side windows, side mirrors, and rear view mirror are also screens that show the correct, corresponding imagery.

The imagery is computer-generated but taken from real footage, so it doesn’t look like animation. “Everything looks very real,” Dowdell said.

Unlike typical driving practice on the road, the simulator has the ability to let students experience a variety of difficult, risky driving situations safely.

“We actually do real distractions in the car with a cell phone and the radio,” Dowdell said. “If kids do an evasive maneuver in the simulator, the surrounding traffic will actually try to avoid them like [it] would on the road.”

The simulator also creates inclement weather, like snow or rain. “It’s real enough that when you’re behind the wheel it gives you the feeling of a slippery road,” Wilson said. “The tires actually slip a little bit.”

It even demonstrates the effects of drinking and driving.

“They tell me it can actually simulate the student being inebriated. As the student drives, the car’s reactions are slowed down,” Wilson said. “What it shows is that your reaction time is slowed down [after drinking], even if you don’t think it is.”

The SafeDrive simulator records a student’s driving from four different vantage points—inside, behind, in front, and on top—so the student can watch and review how he or she did. “The idea is to get the whole situational awareness going with the students,” Dowdell said.

The simulator scores the students’ driving based on lane position, adherence to speed limits, and distance maintained between fixed and moving objects. “As they continue through the program, the percentages get better,” Dowdell said.

Although Mt. Lebanon School District has offered drivers’ education for a number of years, Wilson said he liked the idea of being able to expose students to difficult driving situations and have them analyze their performance.

“I don’t think there were any inherent flaws in what we were doing,” Wilson said. “The problem is you can’t have students experience all the hazards you’ll encounter on the road. With this simulator, you’ll at least get a taste of that. To see what you’ve done, what happened, that’s a real plus.”

The SafeDrive simulator uses technology from GE Capital I-Sim, a leader in driver simulation technology and training systems. SafeDrive worked with educators to develop the curriculum, Dowdell said.

“We think it’s absolutely essential that [students] get behind the wheel,” Dowdell said. The simulator simply augments real driving experience but does not replace it, he said.

SafeDrive Technologies offers a number of complete drivers’ education packages using the simulator.

STARTT—which stands for Safety Threat Awareness and Response Training Technology—costs $465 and starts with nine hours of computer-based training using a combination of the internet and CD-ROM technology.

Students must score 80 percent on an internet test to move to the next stage, which includes nine hours of training in the simulator followed by 21 hours of classroom time. Once students complete this training, they get behind the wheel of an actual car for from three to six hours.

BEST, short for Basic Early Skills Training, costs $90 per student and includes five hours in the simulator to give first-time drivers a feel for the road.

STARS—Special Threats And Risky Situations—features six hours of computer training and four hours in the simulator.

The program focuses on the top causes of crashes for young drivers, such as following too closely, inclement weather, and distractions. It costs $175 per student.

The company hasn’t named a price for the simulator itself. Mt. Lebanon is using the unit at no cost for the duration of the pilot.

Dowdell said his company has asked Carnegie Mellon University to beta-test the product with 400 students. The university will track students’ driving records for a number of years to validate the program’s effectiveness.

Driving accidents are the No. 1 cause of teenage deaths in the United States, far exceeding more highly publicized causes such as school violence and drug abuse, according to national statistics. Dowdell said he hopes his company’s driving simulator can help stem the problem.

Related links:
SafeDrive Technologies LLC

Mt. Lebanon School District

Carnegie Mellon University