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VIDEO: MTI adds driving simulators to CDL course

Many Mitchell Technical Institute students could find themselves driving home from graduation in a big-rig thanks to one of the school's new educational tools.

Bryan Hanley, power line construction and maintenance student, already earned his CDL from taking 'Industrial Transportation' class that is now utilizing a mobile driving simulator to help students learn how to drive vehicles that require a commercial driver's license. (Matt Gade/Republic)
Bryan Hanley, power line construction and maintenance student, already earned his CDL from taking 'Industrial Transportation' class that is now utilizing a mobile driving simulator to help students learn how to drive vehicles that require a commercial driver's license. (Matt Gade/Republic)

Many Mitchell Technical Institute students could find themselves driving home from graduation in a big-rig thanks to one of the school's new educational tools.

Climb the steps of a brightly wrapped trailer currently housed in a non-descript building south of the MTI campus and you'll be met by two new commercial drivers license simulators meant to prepare approximately 60 students per semester for their CDL test.

"Our first responsibility is safety, and with safety comes knowledge," said Chad Rogers, one of two commercial driving instructors at MTI.

Students enrolled in MTI's Agriculture Technology, Propane & Natural Gas Technology and Power Line Construction & Maintenance programs are required to complete the industrial transportation course, and Commercial Driving Instructor Beth Schneider said the school's new $300,000 tool helps make the course a little easier.

The simulation equipment, funded by a federal grant from the Department of Labor, allows students to practice driving a tractor-trailer or other vehicles requiring CDL certification in the safety of the mobile simulation trailer instead of Interstate 90.

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Schneider said the CDL course walks students through the pre-trip inspection process, teaches them to back up their truck through a series of cones and prepares them for a road test. With the new simulators, the two instructors are able to isolate a student's driving skills in need of improvement prior to getting behind the wheel.

Whether it's determining if a student is an aggressive or nervous driver or offering them a chance to practice shifting gears and taking corners, the instructors agreed the simulator gives students a chance to heighten their skills before trying the real thing.

"All this machine has to do is build this much confidence in these students so that when they do step out on the road, they're more aware of what's going on around them," Rogers said.

And students say the simulator is about as close to a real driving experience as you can get without hitting the open road.

John Henkel, an electrical construction and maintenance instructor at MTI who's also taking the course, said the only difference between the simulator and a truck is he's not moving with the simulated vehicle. Otherwise, he said, aspects like the force against the steering wheel and the grinding of the gears provide a life-like experience.

Bryan Hanley, a power line construction and maintenance student who already completed the course, and Heath Schmidt, a farm power technology student taking the course as an elective, agreed starting in the simulator is more beneficial than jumping right into a truck without any practice.

"If you have no experience at all, it gives you at least a taste of what you're going to be doing," Schmidt said.

On Monday, Henkel and Hanley sat behind a steering wheel on either side of the trailer facing three screens projecting a simulated driving experience. Henkel practiced backing up through a series of cones, which is part of the CDL certification test, while Hanley found himself driving through a neighborhood.

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Schneider said the software allows either instructor to program virtually any situation for the students to traverse, including inclement weather, light or dark conditions, high winds or pedestrian traffic alongside the roadway.

Rogers said the variety of programs available increases visual awareness and can be beneficial to seasoned drivers who may have forgotten the subtleties of driving a big-rig.

Rogers, who called the simulator "high-intensity training," put one of those programs on full display Monday on the screen of Hanley.

As Hanley let off the brakes for a green light, his virtual trailer was soon struck by a driver who ran a red light, which was programmed by Rogers.

Rogers said it's little things like the idea that a green light doesn't mean go, it means go with caution, help prepare students for their first outing in an actual truck.

"That's where this thing is really nice, we can make a more aware driver as we're teaching them," Rogers said.

As someone who shares the road with commercial drivers, MTI Director of Marketing & Public Information Julie Brookbank said she appreciated the benefits of the school's CDL program.

"We all drive on the highways and we all want to know that the person behind that truck who's blasting around us or we're passing knows what they're doing," Brookbank said.

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