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State's snowplow simulators stress safety

No snow? No problem. Snowplow drivers for the Crow Wing County Highway Department pretended to plow snow Tuesday in snowplow simulators provided by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "We finally had the capability to come out to places l...

Kris Karr (left), Crow Wing County transportation specialist, listens Tuesday to Andrew Kubista, driving simulator program manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, inside a snowplow driving simulator at the Crow Wing County Highway Department. Snowplow drivers were tested with different scenarios inside the simulator. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video
Kris Karr (left), Crow Wing County transportation specialist, listens Tuesday to Andrew Kubista, driving simulator program manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, inside a snowplow driving simulator at the Crow Wing County Highway Department. Snowplow drivers were tested with different scenarios inside the simulator. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video

No snow? No problem.

Snowplow drivers for the Crow Wing County Highway Department pretended to plow snow Tuesday in snowplow simulators provided by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

"We finally had the capability to come out to places like Crow Wing County when they want the training ... and they can practice their skills in here. Before they'd have to come to us-maybe travel two, three hours," said MnDOT driving simulator program manager Andrew Kubista.

MnDOT offers the simulator training for those who operate a "snowplow, single-unit truck, or a combination of a truck and trailer." The interactive simulation is the first of its kind in the state.

"We set up, we train, and we move on to the next location," said Kubista, who has been a MnDOT trainer for more than decade. "We give them the same benefit that we give MnDOT."

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Two simulators are housed in a 32-foot self-contained trailer with a classroom slideout enabling training to take place anywhere, making it accessible and affordable.

Topics covered include hazard avoidance, snowplows and speed, truck box clearance and usage, snowplow handling and underbody usage, operating in emergency conditions, and precision driving and backing.

"I'm learning every day when I drive, especially driving our heavy equipment," Kubista said. "They've got a lot of areas for blowing snow, they've got a lot of sheltered areas where it piles up, where the sun doesn't seem to get to and gets very icy for long periods of time."

The Crow Wing County Highway Department has jurisdiction over more than 600 miles

of county roads and secondary roads, and removal of snow and ice is a primary function of the department during the winter months, according to county officials such as Jory Danielson.

He is the maintenance supervisor for the department, and he said 18 county maintenance specialists and supervisors are participating in the simulation over the course of two days.

"Each year, we look for different opportunities for our drivers to gain new experiences or new training opportunities," Danielson said. "And this trailer provides very little disruption to our day."

The Crow Wing County Highway Department uses 17 snowplow trucks and other heavy equipment to remove snow and ice, with each of the 17 drivers assigned to a specific plow route representing "an equitable portion" of the more than 600 miles of roadway in the county.

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Various driving cabs are replicated in the trailer, and on-the-road scenarios challenge drivers to demonstrate proper driving techniques, decision-making skills and reactions to confrontations.

"We can put them in some situations that they may not see everyday or that you wouldn't want to do out here in the yard because somebody could get hurt," Kubista said. "If something happens in here, we stop, we discuss it, we reset and we can go from there."

The cost is $600 per session with a maximum of six students, and cities and counties are encouraged by MnDOT to work together to fill a session.

"We preach and pride ourselves on our safety-we're part of Toward Zero Deaths-and we're hoping this experience might put the drivers in a situation they haven't seen or prepare them for a situation they might encounter," Danielson said.

"The first snow event of last year we had 18 inches of snow that fell in about a 12- to 15-hour window. It was snowing so hard, we had wipers snapping off our trucks as they were out plowing ... from 7 in the morning to about midnight that night before taking a quick break."

Kris Karr took part in the training on Tuesday. The 38-year-old from Deerwood is a highway maintenance specialist for Crow Wing County who will be working his third winter.

"You have to keep your eyes everywhere. You have to keep your head on a swivel. You got to look out for a lot of dangers," Karr said.

Companies with workers participating in the simulation report "reductions in number/severity of crashes, and vehicle/maintenance repair costs and improvements in fuel efficiency."

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"I think it does a very good job," Kubista said of the simulation. "We can put up every situation that you see on the road ... and we have the same controls that the drivers have-or a lot of the drivers have in the trucks-so to me, it's actually very realistic."

The training was offered Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 17. The four-hour training session consists of: instructor-led classroom participation, computer-based and simulated driving components.

"The training is designed for new drivers or veteran drivers to refresh their skills. Drivers can improve their ability to recognize and react to a variety of road conditions and hazards to better manage risk," according to promotional material by MnDOT.

"We are driving vehicles that, depending upon MnDOT, the counties, are anywhere from 40,000 pounds to 160,000 pounds," Kubista said. "The standard trucks we have and Crow Wing County would have, when they are fully loaded, it could be up to between 60,000 and 80,000 pounds."

Two drivers operate the simulators in the self-contained trailer, while other drivers complete computer-based training in the trailer with a classroom slideout. Drivers receive immediate feedback after each simulation scenario, according to MnDOT officials.

"People don't realize that it can take a long time to stop that vehicle," Kubista said. "You can't just step on the brake and stop right now. ... And when people on the road try to crowd us, they are putting themselves in jeopardy."

Related Topics: CROW WING COUNTY
I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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