MORGANTON – The North Carolina Department of Transportation’s winter weather prep is going digital this year with a snow plow simulator designed to give employees more training time without getting behind the wheel of an actual vehicle.

The new simulator equipment has only been in service about a month, but already has trained more than 250 NCDOT employees, said Mark Scott, a safety consultant for NCDOT. The company that develops the simulators also offers simulators for aircraft and military vehicles.

“We’re going to put our drivers behind the seats in the simulator before they go out into the field in a dump truck,” Scott said.

Scott said the person running the simulation can throw in almost any scenario imaginable, whether it’s through changing the weather, the landscape or adding in a misfortune like a blown tire or malfunctioning engine. They have about 200 vehicles to choose from when setting up the simulation, all to match vehicles the DOT has in its inventory.

Their focus now is on snow and ice season, Scott said.

“We are running snow plow training, both in the urban environment, and the rural environment, and the mountain environment,” Scott said. “Many of the drivers have been assigned specific roads, and they say the roads in the simulator and what they actually push snow on are virtually the same.”

The simulator grades each run-through and gives drivers a better idea of what they need to pay more attention to in the field.

“The positive thing is we can go through and we can look to see where the driver’s mistakes may be, review those and then try to do it again and get an improvement on their driving abilities,” Scott said. “We’re hoping that they’ll take lessons from the simulator and put them into effect on the streets.”

Even with the cost of sending Scott and his partner, safety engineer Monte Simpson, around the state, Scott said the simulators are saving the taxpayers an average of about $158 per hour. He said they’re teaching about eight or nine hours a day. That’s not the only way the program saves money, though.

“If we have an accident, if we’re out in the real world, in real time, we can’t redo it,” Scott said. “If we do it in the simulator, we just hit a reset button and say, ‘let’s start all over again and see where your errors were.’ Those are all positive things.”

He said looking to the future, NCDOT is considering expanding the program to include their heavy equipment as well.

“It really does reduce costs for the taxpayers and the NCDOT,” Scott said. “It reduces hazards to the motoring public. The more hours you put out on the road, time behind the wheel, that increases our risk hazards.”

The simulators won’t completely replace real-world training, but the simulators give drivers more time behind the wheel at a lower cost before putting them in the seat of a truck with a seasoned instructor.

“We’ve done over 250, approaching 300, people running through the simulators from 20-something-year veterans to 12-month employees that have just been hired and they all said we should have had this a long time ago,” Scott said.

Sports Editor Justin Epley contributed to this article.