One at a time, Crothersville High School juniors and seniors buckled into a semitrailer seat, placed their hands on the wheel, shifted the gear to drive and slowly accelerated from an exit ramp to a three-lane roadway.
Just minutes after reaching the speed limit, a box appears in the road.
Despite trying to swerve to miss it, the truck crashes into the box.
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The driver is able to recover and continue down the road, where other boxes pop up.
It’s meant for the driver to hit the first box. What’s important is how they react from that point when the other boxes appear.
In this case, it’s an electronic simulator exercise provided by Marvin Johnson and Associates Inc. of Columbus, which specializes in truck insurance.
The purpose is to give drivers a feel for how a semitrailer handles in different environments and situations.
“I think a lot of the kids, it didn’t jive with them until they hit something. That’s when they are like, ‘OK,'” said Wayne Andrews, safety officer for Marvin Johnson and Associates.
“I’m like, ‘Imagine that box was a family of five,'” he said. “There are some scenarios that you cannot recover from. Are you going to seriously hold your speed high if you just hit a box on the road? We want you to react the way you would normally react. It’s about having those moments in a simulator that give you an opportunity to train your mind on how to react the next time.”
Another part of the simulator set up at Wischmeier Trucking in Tampico put the students behind the wheel of a semitrailer on a two-lane road while it’s raining, storming or foggy. They also faced different obstacles, such as a deer running across the road and farm machinery off the side of the road, and different scenarios, including a tire blowout.
“I thought that initially, it was just kind of fun, like a game,” Andrews said. “But then they started realizing the value in the training in this environment as opposed to learning the hard way out on the road.”
Then in a garage at Wischmeier Trucking, the students learned about blind spots from Jerry Ogle, manager of safety and loss control for Marvin Johnson and Associates.
They learned how to safely get into the cab of a semitrailer, sit in the driver’s seat and check the mirrors for blind spots.
Some of the students had been in the passenger seat of a semitrailer before, but for most of them, being in the driver’s seat was a new experience.
The students were able to understand how difficult it is to look in the mirrors and see vehicles of various sizes if they are in a blind spot.
“I think getting up in the cab of the truck and seeing what actually the limitations were for that size of a vehicle was pretty new to all of them because most of them were like, ‘I can’t see it at all,'” Ogle said. “They were pretty shocked, I think, at first.”
Lesli Stevens, safety director for Wischmeier Trucking, said the company has safety meetings four times a year, and Marvin Johnson and Associates representatives visit to talk about safe driving.
Marvin Johnson and Associates purchased the simulator trailer in April, and it has been taken to companies they insure to use for driver training.
Once Stevens found out about the simulator, she asked a couple of local schools if they would be interested in trying it out. Crothersville was the only one that was able to make it work.
This was the first time for high school students to use the simulator.
“That was the goal of all of this is to be able to get out and start getting it in front of the community because it’s all about awareness and training,” Ogle said. “I figure if we can catch kids when they are 15, 16, 17 and give them a little more appreciation for what the driver has to deal with and teach them how to interact around a vehicle, it will be a win-win for everybody.”
Stevens said she felt the students gained a new appreciation for professional truck drivers.
“These guys are on the road, they are learning (to drive) and they need to understand how a truck driver reacts and what their blind spots are so they know where they need to be at all times,” she said.
“As you’re passing a driver in a semi, can you see that driver in the mirror because if you can see him in the mirror, then he can see you, but if you can’t see him, then that driver does not know for sure where you’re at,” she said. “We want them to just be more aware of their surroundings and be a little safer.”
Ogle said he was surprised to learn several of the students had a connection to trucking.
Crothersville junior Logan Collins said he has driven a semitrailer before, but the simulator had a little different feel.
“The simulator was a little bit more touchy,” he said. “You can definitely tell there was a trailer back there whenever you were driving it.”
Being able to react to the obstacles and scenarios was a good experience, Collins said.
“Being safe around trucks and knowing their blind spots and knowing all of the dangers that can happen,” he said of what he took away from the experience.
Juniors Brooklynn Huff and Lacey Hall both had been in the passenger seat of a semitrailer before but not the driver’s seat.
Huff said it was interesting to see all of the blind spots and what drivers have to do to ensure they are safe.
“It was important learning their perspective because before this, I would get really annoyed with truck drivers, so now, I understand the struggle they go through,” she said.
Sitting behind the wheel of a semitrailer was interesting to Hall, too.
“It’s obviously a lot higher, and it is a lot more dangerous. You’ve got to slow down,” she said. “I learned that you have to be really careful when you’re around semis like that, especially in different weather conditions. It’s really hard for them. If you can see them, then they can see you.”
Even though she said it was a little scary, Hall was most impressed with the simulator.
“For the first time doing anything like that, I feel like I did pretty good,” she said.
Andrews and Ogle both said the exercises were eye-opening for the students.
“It’s about getting them to adjust their perspective when they see (a semitrailer),” Ogle said. “I think a lot of times, they just assume that that driver in that truck can do exactly what they can do, and that’s not the reality of the world we live in.”
Andrews said the students now have more respect for the limitations of a truck.
“It’s the driver’s responsibility on both sides to drive safely, but the truck is fighting the physics. The 80,000 pounds of that truck just physically cannot stop as quickly as that car,” he said.
“There are some instances where if you’re too close to a vehicle, you’re too close to a truck or you’re outside of that safety zone, you’re going to have a serious incident with a truck,” he said. “There’s nothing that they can physically do in some cases if you don’t give them the space to react.”
Tips for driving safely around large trucks or buses
1. Stay out of the “No Zones,” which are around the front, back and sides of the vehicle.
2. Pass safely.
3. Don’t cut it close.
4. Stay back.
5. Anticipate wide turns.
6. Be patient.
7. Buckle up.
8. Stay focused.
9. Don’t drive fatigued.
10. Never drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
For details on these tips from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, visit fmcsa.dot.gov/ourroads.