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Schools Embrace Simulators for Driver Education

Driving simulators, like the one California-based VDI will install throughout an Alabama school district next month, are in use in all 50 states and becoming more common as technology improves.

A car parked in front of a school with a yellow 3D triangle attached to its roof that reads: "Driver Education. Student Driver."
Students take their turn behind the wheel on a blustery Illinois afternoon. The first kid brakes too hard on the icy street, sliding through an intersection and striking a bus. The next looks down at the speedometer instead of the taillights ahead of her, rear-ending another vehicle past a stoplight. The third driver sends a text message as his car goes off the road and sideswipes a utility pole.

All three walk away unscathed and smiling, wondering who could do worse.

This is not their father’s driver ed program. They’ll repeatedly fail — and survive — to the point of proficiency. If this were real, it wouldn’t be funny.

Traditional behind-the-wheel driver education programs where 16-year-olds scooch into a car with a nervous instructor and passenger-side brake is a fading image. Budget cuts, gas prices, maintenance costs, safety issues and COVID-19 concerns presumably played a role in shrinking fleets.

Virtual driving instruction, meanwhile, appears to be on the rise nationwide.

The El Dorado Hills, California-based Virtual Driver Interactive (VDI) has equipped driver-ed “labs” in all 50 states, according to company sales director Van Burns. On May 15, she said, the company will replace 48 simulators in the Baldwin County, Ala., school district with updated models. Other districts that have purchased or updated their Virtual Driving Essentials (VDE) tools in recent years include Hinsdale, Ill.; Turtle Mountain, N.D.; Anoka-Hennepin, Minn.; and Grants Cibola, N.M.

Driving simulators are not new. Janelle Marconi, who oversees the driver education program in Hinsdale, Ill., said when she began working in the district more than three decades ago, students practiced in a “gigantic box with a steering wheel and pedals that looked like an unpopular 1980s video game at Chuck E. Cheese.” But the technology for assessing improvement and correcting bad habits, she explained, is always improving. Her district began purchasing VDE simulators three years ago, and now it has 27 of them between two high schools that serve 4,100 students.

“One of the biggest things is, kids get comfortable with stopping in bad weather conditions before they get into a vehicle, and they get automatic feedback. It’s essential that they feel comfortable and understand that safety is a huge issue when they’re driving a car,” Marconi said in an interview Thursday with Government Technology.

In Illinois, driver’s license applicants are not required to take and pass a road test if they earn at least a B in a driver’s education course that consists of 30 hours of classroom training and six hours of actual road time with a certified instructor. Marconi stressed that the simulators have not fully replaced roadside training, but they have prepared teens to develop real driving skills much faster.

The VDE product includes software and two hardware options: a car frame or a desktop model. Both have a steering wheel, gas pedal, brake and large monitor. The steering wheel vibrates with either option; however, the frame, which is portable, does not gyrate or tilt.

“It’s very effective with this audience because they were raised in a gaming world, but we don’t want them to think that this is a video game,” Burns, the VDI sales director, told Government Technology.

The software is not an online application. An automated narrator talks students through each lesson, with guidance and evaluation on everything from intersections to slippery road conditions and night driving, to urban rush-hour traffic. Much like an actual road test, the young driver starts with a 100 score that can only get worse as deductions are made with each mistake. It can also simulate distracted driving scenarios. Students are encouraged to see what happens when they speed, follow too closely or drive erratically in poor weather conditions.

“Make your mistakes on a simulator without the dire consequences,” Burns said. “It does develop some reaction time, but it’s not meant to develop reflexes for driving a vehicle. It’s meant to complement, not replace, driver’s ed programs.”

Burns acknowledged that there is stiff competition in the driving simulator marketplace, to include driver education, though some other companies are more focused on professional driver development, fleet management or safety research. VDI also has simulator games for the Microsoft Xbox One or Sony Playstation 5 consoles. Those products are aimed at pre-teens who want a head start in the process.

“It’s not Grand Theft Auto or anything like that,” Burns said.

The VDE simulators cost between $9,900 and $14,000 apiece and, due to operating system update requirements, have a shelf life of about five years, Burns said.
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.