James River puts simulator through the paces

James River Bus Lines routinely asks its drivers to attempt slippery slopes, persevere through ice storms, deal with blowouts and navigate streets on which nearly every motorist is running a red light and every pedestrian is wandering obliviously. Sound like the world's worst rush hour? Actually it's the MCI Driver Training Simulator, and for the past several months, James River has been using the virtual-reality tool to fine-tune its drivers' safety skills and save on fuel.

James River, which is headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, bought the simulator from MCI in 2008. Most of the company's 130 drivers have now trained on it at least once. "We've greatly reduced our number of incidents," says President Stephen Story, who attributes part of the company's safety success to the simulator. "It's actually been pretty boring out there — and that's a good thing."

It's anything but boring behind the wheel of the simulator, which features realistic instrumentation, wrap-around plasma video screens, sound and even motion. The simulator can be programmed to simulate just about any driving situation or scenario at will — especially important when a driver needs to go through retraining to address a specific skill in which he or she has demonstrated a deficiency.

Making drivers think

Story is a fan of the simulator because it does more than merely improve technical skills. "We've found it's not necessarily the driving that's the problem. It's the thinking, planning and execution that can become the problem," says Story. If, for example, a driver has shown that he is easily distracted by motorists to his left while he is making a right turn, the simulator can address that problem specifically. "We could go out on the road for four hours and never encounter a similar situation," says Story. "With the simulator, we may be able to solve the problem in 30 minutes."

Story also points to how potentially helpful it is for drivers to go through scenarios in which pedestrians dart out at unexpected times from hard-to-see corners — especially for drivers who deal with busy conventions or college campus events where students sometimes pay more attention to their MP3 players and text messages than they do the street.

Fuel savings

James River Bus Lines also uses the simulator to help drivers optimize their fuel economy. "We quickly realized it's a great tool for fuel conservation," says Story. "We usually use the highway module for that."

Making an impression on clients

Story also feels the simulator reflects well on the company when it comes time to seek new business. "I can't say that we've gotten contracts specifically because of the simulator, but clients are super-impressed that we go to that extent, and it's a concrete way to prove our commitment to safety."

Press privileges

The simulator has also helped James River raise its profile with the public. Following an accident at another company, James River let local news outlets know about its simulator program.

Three stations responded within days, and one reporter even came out and took an on-camera spin in the simulator. "She did a great job," says Story. "She saved the vehicle in an ice storm. Our jaws were dropping."

Chasing a little fun

Of course, the simulator has its fun side too. In the process of customizing the simulator for James River, the programmers apparently accidentally left a police car module on the unit. Story and his safety director have had a bit of fun running the car through various chase scenarios. Says Story, "We weren't driving it very safely, that's for sure."

James River also had the simulator on display during its 80th anniversary open house in October. "People tried to simulate all sorts of weird stuff," says Story.

Of course, Story is quick to point out that while the simulator can be fun, it's not a toy. "Still," he says, "we'd much rather someone experience spinning out on the simulator than on the coach itself."

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