New bus driver training simulators come to Fulton County Schools
Imagine learning how to drive a 15-ton school bus, but in the comfort and safety of a training classroom.
This spring, the Fulton County Schools (FCS) Transportation Department is debuting two training simulators that mimic the driver’s cab of a school bus. Similar to aviation simulators, trainees sit behind the steering wheel in an actual bus driver’s seat – which both vibrate and shake in response to their actions – in front of a wall of monitors that simulate busy streets, road sounds, and neighborhood activity.
The idea came from Superintendent Mike Looney, who had seen the simulators used successfully to train new drivers in the transportation industry. Over the past year, FCS Transportation staff researched the concept and ultimately purchased two simulator units, making Fulton the first Georgia school system to own the training tools.
“These simulators are powerful tools for safety,” said Dr. Looney. “I’ve driven a commercial vehicle before, and there is already a level of difficulty in mastering its controls and maneuvering around traffic. But imagine trying to do that while maintaining the safety of a busload of students. These simulators will be game-changers in helping our drivers gain more expertise and confidence.”
At a recent demo, Dr. Looney sat in the driver’s seat and marveled at how difficult it was to operate the bus while watching the road for upcoming hazards. In the computerized scenario, cars changed lanes without warning; trucks ran stop signs; and cyclists raced in front of the bus. In another scenario, the bus blew a tire and the steering wheel turned sluggish in response. As the driver, Dr. Looney had to maintain control while decreasing his speed and safely moving the bus off the road.
The technology comes in two parts – a trainee simulator and an instructor controller. The trainee simulator mirrors the interior of the driver’s compartment with all standard bus controls – door, lights, windshield wipers, high beams, turn signals, gas pedal, brake and emergency brake – as well as overhead speakers. Four monitors surround the driver and project realistic, turn-by-turn video of city streets and neighborhoods. At the instructor controller, trainers use their computer to choose from hundreds of individualized scenarios for the trainee simulator.
The training simulators were acquired for a total of $425,000 from Doron Precision Systems, Inc. using funds from the FCS Bridge to Success Plan. A simulator is housed in each of Fulton County Schools’ two bus transportation hubs – one in Alpharetta and the other in Fairburn – with the initial plan providing each driver, including all Transportation Department staff, a minimum of two hours of simulator time next school year. Other departments operating FCS vehicles, such as school police officers or warehouse delivery drivers, also can use the simulators with their own training modules.
The simulators dovetail with the district’s recruitment strategy for hiring bus drivers. Like other school systems nationwide, Fulton County Schools faces the challenge of hiring drivers to fill the next year’s bus routes. The district provides paid, on-the-job training toward earning a Commercial Drivers’ License through a combination of classroom learning, on-the-road experience, and time practicing with the simulator’s scenarios. Once trainees complete training, they can graduate to full driver status and operate a bus with students. Fulton County Schools’ goal is to have each of its 820 buses staffed by a driver by the start of the 2023-2024 school year in August.
For more information on joining the FCS Transportation team and its training program, visit www.fultonschools.org/drivethebus.
Some of the efforts mentioned in this story are funded by Fulton County Schools' Bridge To Success Plan. The plan is a three-year comprehensive and transformational investment utilizing ESSER and American Rescue Plan (ARP) Federal funds to help students successfully recover from any learning loss and other negative impacts resulting from the COVID-19 Pandemic.