Georgia native Luke Pye was 18 years old, driving with his high school girlfriend on the highway when a van cut him off. He reacted by turning his wheel toward the guardrail, avoiding the surrounding cars and oncoming traffic.
The situation could have played out in many different ways that afternoon. The couple could’ve been among the more than 41,000 people to lose their lives to car crashes in the US that year in 2007. Instead, they walked away with only a couple of bruises. Today, they’re married and have a four-month-old son.
Pye credits his good fortune in large part to a driving simulator. “Driving on the simulator at my high school taught me to keep calm and think clearly in stressful situations,” he says.
Most schools around the country aren’t teaching any driving education, but the ones that do are teaching it based on a several-decades-old model. One man from Georgia has been trying to change that for over a decade. Following the death of Alan Brown’s 17-year-old son Joshua in July 2003, he architected and lobbied for a piece of legislation known as “Joshua’s Law.” Brown’s son, Joshua Brown, hydroplaned driving on the highway in the rain at 40 miles per hour and hit a tree. “Practically nothing” was offered to help train his son deal with these kinds of driving conditions, says the senior Brown, chairman of the Joshua Brown Foundation. “With simulation, teens can have that same crash over and over until they know exactly what to do.” In Joshua Brown’s case, such training may have meant knowing not to go 40 miles an hour in heavy rain. In Pye’s case, it was learning skid control and how to quickly maneuver the steering wheel when things go wrong.
Following the death of his son and the implementation of Joshua’s Law in 2005 in Georgia, Brown had placed six driving simulators at Cartersville High School, where Pye attended, which was the first high school in the state to receive them. Today, there are thousands of simulators in high schools around the state.
Before Joshua’s Law, high schools in Georgia were not providing driver’s education, Brown says. Out of 416 Georgia high schools at the time, only nine were offering Driver's Ed. They were using a program created in the early 1950s, Brown says, which is reflective of driving programs nationwide. Since then, cars have gotten faster. There are exponentially more cars on the road. Technological distractions from Snapchat to Google Maps are endless, and yet for most high school students across America, driving education hasn’t evolved.
Joshua’s Law raises traffic violation penalties by 5 percent, providing funding for placement of "modern" driver’s education in Georgia high schools. This new driver’s education consists of five elements: simulation, an interactive and engaging curriculum, hazard recognition, parental involvement, and behind-the-wheel training.
"I BELIEVE SIMULATION AND THE MODERN DRIVING EDUCATION THAT I HAD AT MY HIGH SCHOOL HELPED TO SAVE MY LIFE."
"I believe simulation and the modern driving education that I had at my high school helped to save my life, giving me more confidence behind the wheel – every state should use it," Pye says, reflecting on the afternoon of his crash.
Driving simulators can take several forms. For commercial use, one of the more popular versions is a portable desktop model, which is usually set up at home, school, or work at a desk, costing around $7,000. It’s fitted with a steering wheel and a wide monitor, along with gas and break pedals. A more expensive type is the full cab model, costing between $10,000 to $20,000, which looks like the driver’s side of a car and includes real car parts down to the ignition key.
"Simulators mimic a real car down to the gas and break pedals, signals, windshield wipers, and ignition key," explains Steve Mochel, president of Connecticut-based Fresh Green Light, a driving program that supplements traditional training with heavy use of driving simulation.
Driving simulators replicate actual driving experiences through all types of scenarios that include vehicle handling, scanning and hazard detection, parallel parking, and hydroplaning. Other situations include distracted and impaired driving. It will simulate driving during different times of day and during various weather conditions, for example, giving tips like better scanning through visual and verbal instruction. On a modern driver simulator, there are up to 300 different scenarios simulated that teach the range of cognitive skills needed to deal with complex roadway and traffic conditions, including situation awareness, hazard perception, decision making under time pressure, and general defensive driving techniques, according to Mochel. These techniques contrast with traditional driver’s education, which is at the whim of whatever weather and traffic conditions prevail at the time of driving.
The stats are hard to ignore. Driving simulators were placed in 147 Georgia high schools between 2005 and 2007, funded with money from Joshua’s Law. Since the simulators and updated driving program were implemented, there has been a statewide decline in teen auto fatalities of around 60 percent or 181 student lives a year, according to Brown and data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. In Gwinnett County, one of the most populated counties in Georgia, teen fatalities in cars have fallen from 23 in 2006 to only five in 2011, according to research by Atlanta-based Kennesaw State University.
Research in other parts of the country reflects similar findings. In January 2013, a researcher at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, showed a statistically significant reduction in the number of car crashes among local high school students who had taken part in virtual simulation. Over six-month and one-year periods, researcher Peter Ekeh compared a group of student drivers who used simulators to supplement on the road driving to a control group of students who didn’t use any simulation. His research found that the group of students who incorporated simulator training had significantly less driving infractions and no car crashes over both time periods, while more than one-quarter of the control group experienced car crashes after one year.
"WHAT WE’RE DOING NOW IS A JOKE."
Pye is now a US Marine and a graduate from the United States Naval Academy. He notes that throughout his undergrad career and even in his current job he has been exposed to simulation as a form of training to fly a plane, drive a ship, and coordinate shooting of missiles, cannons, and artillery. "The military uses a lot of simulation because it’s more cost-effective, and it gives people an opportunity to mess up and prevent injury," he says.
Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who guided his US Airways airliner to safety in New York’s Hudson River in January 2009, saving all aboard, echoes that sentiment. He says that repeated flight training through simulation gave him the "creative reserve" to think outside of the box. It allowed him to land on the water when no other option was possible at the time. "Flight simulator training and team building helped give us the foundation to solve that problem in 208 seconds," he says.
Pilots are required to practice simulator training every 9-12 months to prepare for rain, snow, ice, fog, wind, and other types of inclement weather, along with emergencies like engine and hydraulic failures. "Simulators give pilots the opportunity to repeatedly practice and become expert at handling situations that rarely occur on actual flights, so when they are suddenly confronted with an inflight emergency, it will not be the first time they have seen such a challenge," he explains.
But when it comes to driving, simulation has not entered the mainstream of driving education, even though traffic crashes are the number one killer of teens in America with around 3,000 deaths per year, according to the CDC. To put the numbers in perspective, around 4,500 American soldiers were killed in the Iraq War between 2003 and 2012, according to iCasualties.org, which tracks deaths and injuries among coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the same time period, more than 43,000 teenagers in America died in car crashes, data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows. "As a society we need to be doing a much better job in driver education. What we’re doing now is a joke," says Sullenberger. "If the number of people lost from car crashes were lost from flying, it would equate to an airliner crashing nearly every day with no survivors. We wouldn’t accept that in aviation. But as a society we accept it with driving."
"IF THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE LOST FROM CAR CRASHES WERE LOST FROM FLYING, IT WOULD EQUATE TO AN AIRLINER CRASHING NEARLY EVERY DAY WITH NO SURVIVORS."
Some private companies across the US have slowly begun implementing driving simulation, too. UPS, for example, has been using a training simulator to supplement its driver safety training, and the results have been positive. When UPS first had the idea to incorporate simulators into its driver training program, it turned to Sacramento-based Virtual Driver Interactive, a company UPS has worked with over the last year to provide simulator training for employees at various UPS divisions on a rotational basis. The training is broken down into sections with each module focusing on a particular safety issue, with the entire virtual program for UPS taking about an hour. "From July 2013 to April of this year when we implemented the simulators in our facility, we saw a 38% reduction in crashes," says Rodney Ruff, division manager for UPS in Brooklyn, New York. Since the end of April, the simulators were transferred from the Brooklyn division to the division in Albany. The percent of crashes for the Brooklyn location immediately flat-lined, and the Albany office had crashes decrease by about 50%.
All this comes as cars are getting smarter, though: many modern models have collision-sensing features that can help avoid crashes entirely, and self-driving technologies are around the corner. Is better driver’s education really necessary? "Anybody who thinks that we’ll all be in self-driving cars in 10 years is excited by technology but isn’t practical," says Bob Davis, CEO of Virtual Driver Interactive, a company he founded to help teenagers become safer drivers through simulation training. "There aren’t many safety professionals who think that the software will be ‘bulletproof’ in terms of liability in all situations anytime soon."
Commercial plane "auto pilot" settings have not replaced the need for training pilots, nor will self-driving cars eliminate the need for judgment and training, but researchers say it can and will help with many specific situations. Even the slightest manufacturing defects result in hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fines, Davis says. "No one will want to take on the liability of self-driving cars for a really long time … maybe my teenagers’ kids’ kids will have to worry about it."
"ANYBODY WHO THINKS THAT WE’LL ALL BE IN SELF-DRIVING CARS IN 10 YEARS IS EXCITED BY TECHNOLOGY BUT ISN’T PRACTICAL."
No simulator will replicate hours of experience in a car. However, if they’re used to supplement actual driving with everyday scenarios as well as dangerous ones drivers ideally never encounter, simulators will provide practice and lessons to learn and can reduce accidents, says Davis.
Meanwhile, many say the high cost of the technology is preventing it from catching on. A racing video game may only cost $50, but driving simulators come at a significantly higher cost: educational models can start at $7,000, while research models can run up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most states now seem to be content with using only public service announcements to affect driver safety, but simply putting up billboards and running campaigns not to text and drive is a poor substitute for actually supporting and funding driver education, says Davis. "Simulators may have to show more widespread improvement in crash statistics before states require simulation in either health classes or driver’s education classes."
Incentives will also be needed for drivers to seek simulation technology and for training centers to incorporate them into their schools. If insurance companies promised a reduction in auto insurance premiums for people who have passed a series of simulation courses or received a credit for doing so, more people would take it seriously, one insurance executive says. Others note that for simulation to be adopted, states could mandate drivers get better training, which would increase costs for driver training but save lives in the long term. "Safety pays for itself in all industries," says Sullenberger, giving the example that it’s less expensive to give superior hospital primary care as opposed to rushing care and then needing to readmit patients.
Dr. Flaura Winston, a public health researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, predicts that implementing simulators in schools across America and in driver education more broadly could "significantly" reduce car accidents if integrated appropriately into driver's ed curriculum. "Crashes are the leading cause of death for adolescents," she says, "and they should be treated as a health problem."
"SAFETY PAYS FOR ITSELF IN ALL INDUSTRIES."
In the end, simulators should not be used as a scare tactic, researchers and educators say, but to see deficits in driver behavior, address them and supplement existing training, making roads across America safer for everyone.
"The good thing about simulation is that there’s always a restart button," Pye says.
Correction: The article originally suggested Dr. Flaura Winston had said that simulators could lead to a "double-digit" decline in car accidents, but the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia says that there isn't sufficient research yet to directly quantify the benefit. The text has been changed to say that a correctly integrated simulator could reduce car accidents "significantly."