Simulator helps Yukon bus drivers stay safe as they head back to school

'It's an intimidating thing to jump into a school bus, if you've only driven a car all your life,' says Standard Bus company general manager Ron Swizdaryk.

Simulator tests bus drivers' ability to deal with hazards like blown tires and icy roads

Lee Malanchuk from the Yukon government's Transport Services branch was one of the people who took a spin on the school bus driving simulator on Monday. (Dave Croft/CBC)

School bus drivers in the Yukon are getting a crash course on safe driving, but the crashes are all on a driving simulator that's been brought to the territory for a few days this week.

The Standard Bus Company has the contract to operate all of the territory's school bus routes, according to its general manager, Ron Swizdaryk.

He said that's 61 buses. He expects about 45 of the drivers will take a spin on the driving simulator.

"The cargo we haul is our future," Swizdaryk said. "It's very important, it's surprising what [drivers] learn, what they thought they knew, so it's a good thing."

The simulator is operated by Edmonton-based driving instructor Ron Tripke. It's set  up in a customized motor coach owned by the Pacific Western Group.

Edmonton-based driving instructor Ron Tripke travels the country with the simulator. (Dave Croft/CBC)

A particular issue with driving a school bus is the tail swing when making a turn, Tripke said. It's because of the lengthy gap between the rear axle and bumper. It can result in the rear end of the bus swinging out into an adjacent lane.

The simulator throws surprises at the trainees like a car pulling out from the curb, blown tires and emergency vehicles running red lights at intersections.

"The awareness level of their surroundings is so vitally important for a driver," Tripke said. 

"It all stems down to their attitude, it's how they choose to drive, if they choose to drive defensively, choose to drive safely, that's a mindset, that's what they're going to do," Tripke said.

"If they choose to drive erratically, or recklessly, that's something else that they would choose to do,"  he said.

Swizdaryk said drivers who have only driven small vehicles often make better bus drivers because they have not learned any bad habits.

"It's an intimidating thing to jump into a school bus, if you've only driven a car all your life," Swizdaryk said.  "It's 40 feet [13 metres] long, but once they get past that, they realize it's not that tough."

Standard Bus company general manager Ron Swizdaryk says the simulator was last in Whitehorse six years ago. (Dave Croft/CBC)

Experienced commercial drivers can learn a lot from the simulator and traditional training techniques, Swizdaryk said.

One of the guest trainees, Lee Malanchuk, didn't get far on his simulated trip before sliding off an icy road into the ditch.

He said he didn't have much control once the simulated bus started skidding.

The inside of the motor coach customized to house the driving simulator. (Dave Croft/CBC)

He called it  "a good training exercise." 

Swizdaryk said it's better for a driver's first experience with a blown tire to be on the simulator than on a road, with the blown tire being a good example of that. Many drivers would slam on the brakes when the best response to use a bit of acceleration to keep control over the vehicle and then gradually slow down.