The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is the fifth-largest transit authority in the U.S. They’ve relied on simulation-based bus driving training since 2006. In recent years they’ve discovered that their sims are especially good for teaching driving fundamentals to new operators. According to expert instructor Derek Sullivan, “I find the most use [of the simulator] in teaching fundamentals to students.”
MBTA’s bus driving training program now begins with a compressed three-day basic “Vehicle Operations” unit. Using a combination of standard and custom simulation scenarios, they can teach both generically good driving habits while preparing operators to navigate some challenges specific to MBTA routes and communities. By day three, operators who’ve never driven any sort of commercial vehicle are ready to safely operate a vehicle on Boston streets.
The first day of MBTA’s course is a standard classroom lecture with the entire group (usually around 30 students). Topics covered include policies and procedures, an introduction to the air brake system, blinker locations, an introduction to simulation training, and so on.
“Getting Them Comfortable in the Seat”
On the second day, MBTA breaks the 30 student class into two groups of 15. One group heads to the classroom, the other to the sims. (They’ll later swap—small group sizes facilitate discussion and improve student engagement.)
The classroom group discusses turn techniques, setting the seat, setting mirrors, off-tracking, stopping distance, and explores the practical applications of the lecture material from day one.
The other group heads to the simulator. As Sullivan explains, “When you first get new students—especially [those who] don’t have their Class-B licenses yet—they’re very intimidated because they know they’re gonna be driving a 43,000 pound, 40-foot vehicle, and they’ve never driven anything bigger than a moving truck.” This would be a deal-breaker for many trainees if they had to go directly from sitting in class to sitting behind the wheel—even in the relative safety of a closed training course. “[Working in the sim] breaks the tension a little bit.”
Sullivan begins with proper seat and mirror setup. He then starts his Blindspot Awareness Script. This is an immersive exercise in proper scanning and movement. “I made kind of a game,” he explains, an approach that helps students “get comfortable in the seat.”
“I put [random] objects in the blindspot around the bus, so when the operator finally gets their seat set, sets the mirrors, I ask the operator: Please identify all of the hazards. A lot of times new operators don’t move around like they’re supposed to. We teach them to ‘rock & roll’ in the seat. So I coach them, why don’t you lean forward a little bit and tell me what you see? … [T]o get them used to moving around in the seat to see around the blind spots of the bus.”
Using Standard and Custom Simulation Scripts
From there, trainees begin working through a series of standard simulation scripts. These cover off-tracking, stopping distance, and similar route tasks. Each script was designed by FAAC (a leading provider of simulation solutions) and is based on feedback from countless transit agencies and trainers. These “road-tested” scripts have demonstrated their effectiveness at helping new operators integrate the rules and procedures covered in the lecture.
Following these basics, MBTA moves into a series of custom scripts. These were all created with FAAC’s drag-n-drop scenario-authoring tool, Scenario ToolBox (STB). This tool makes it easy for MBTA trainers to quickly develop new immersive scripts based on actual local incidents—down to the weather, visibility, and traffic conditions at the time of the accident.
For example, one script Sullivan relies on is based on an intersection that has been the site of several pedestrian strikes. “Operators tend to sweep that turn,” Sullivan says. A reenactment of one such incident is included in the lecture portion of the unit. “We try to just train them to make that nice square turn, so the blind spot moves.” During the lecture portion, trainees see reenactments of the accident (including aerial views of the intersection and how a bus passes through it). Then, in simulation, they personally experience that same intersection from the operator’s point-of-view. Using the simulation to tie together the intellectual understanding of how to handle such an intersection, and the visceral experience of being in it has proven to be a remarkably efficient way to fully engage new operators. This reliably prepares them to move to on-the-streets behind-the-wheel training on the third day of their program.