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Simulated driving prepares employees

A trailer sat in the Liberty Lake Police Station parking lot for three days this week as city employees and elected officials took turns taking a driving simulator for a spin.

The city’s insurance company, Canfield and Associates, brought the equipment to town.

“Our hope is to reduce traffic collisions and claims,” said Kelly Watkins, a simulator specialist. The simulator includes scenarios that cover defensive driving techniques, brake failure, tire blowouts and bad weather. The first couple of simulations are generally simple. “I’ll start them out kind of easy,” Watkins said.

On Wednesday afternoon Mayor Steve Peterson buckled up in front of three large screens simulating what he would see out of the windshield, side windows, rearview mirror and side mirrors. As he started the car, put it in gear and drove off, the flowing scenery on the screens gave the sensation of movement.

The simulator changes from daylight driving to night driving in an instant, with equally quick changes from sunny weather to snow or driving rain. Watkins praised Peterson’s hand positions at 10 and 2. Many people drive with a hand on top of the steering wheel, Watkins said, which can be a problem if your airbag deploys. “If you’re in a collision, it’ll knock your hand into your teeth,” he said.

The first hard test was a tire blowout. Peterson’s “car” swerved left and into the median before coasting to a stop. “You did really good not hitting the brake,” Watkins said. “Which tire blew out?”

“It went this way, so probably the front left,” Peterson said.

Another tire blowout took place in the dark on the freeway. This time a right tire blew and Peterson narrowly avoided hitting a tanker truck. During all the simulations, Peterson only crashed once during the brake failure test. He had to swerve back and forth to avoid obstacles that appeared in front of him and successfully avoided bicyclists, pedestrians and other cars. But in the middle of an intersection, he zagged left when he should have zigged right to avoid an oncoming truck and was hit broadside.

After the simulation was over Peterson said many council members volunteered to participate.

“I asked everybody to sign up,” he said. “It was fun. It’s a good experience for all our employees.”

At one point during the exercise Watkins had talked about techniques taught during driver’s training. Peterson noted that his driver’s education class was in the 1960s. “That was 50 years ago,” he said.

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