Driver Training Simulators: Strategies and Tactics


Emergency response driver training simulators (ERDTS) create real-world experiences that enable drivers to hone their skills within a variety of challenging situations. Drivers can learn a wide range of tasks, from basic vehicle operations to more advanced scenario-based tactical training, for many different vehicle types. This training enables the student to experience real-world situations without the logistical, legal, and moral ramifications that would automatically be attached to a mistake made on the streets.

ERDTS come in various configurations, from a basic open cab model with a stationary seat to a fully enclosed cab attached to a full motion base. Professional systems should have either real or computer-generated mirrors.

In addition, professional ERDTS come with a full dashboard and an instrumentation cluster with working gauges, steering wheel, accelerator, and brake. They provide at least three forward-facing screens to project the environmental imagery so students can check objects at a 90° angle. Vehicle dynamics and physical forces are replicated within the simulated vehicle and virtual driving world. Instructor tools include environmental and traffic controls, outcome-based driving scenarios, and a replay function to enable analysis and critique.

Simulators can replicate any type of vehicle, but car and truck models are the most popular in the fire/EMS training field. Regardless of the driving cab’s configuration, the software supports a multitude of vehicles that can be selected prior to starting the scenario. The type of vehicle picked will alter the dynamics and viewpoint, mimicking that real vehicle. For example, a student driving a simulated water tanker will feel the water surge push the vehicle along when attempting to stop. Each simulator usually comes with at least five types of vehicles: engine, truck, ambulance, SUV, and sedan; other vehicles can be added as well. All of these features combine to provide a “game speed” driving experience to students.

One of the definitions of experience is the knowledge one gets from performing the task in a realistic setting. One of the hardest things to teach is experience; most get this through “on-the-job training.” Emergency response driving is arguably the worst type of task to learn in this manner. Learning how to enter and clear an intersection against the red light and left of center should not be taught when responding to a call.

The developmental phase of experience requires the student to reason and analyze the situation to determine the best outcome; this concept is called Recognition-Primed Decision Making. As students develop experience, their decision tree grows, and as they have more and more experience, their ability to recognize patterns is enhanced. This gives them more options to choose from, which means that, more often than not, the first option they choose will work.

Another definition of experience is “the knowledge you needed three minutes ago.” Humans have a great ability to reason and learn from others, but the best learning experiences come from our own mistakes. Problematically, this type of education can be very costly and does not always have a forgiving outcome.

ERDTS training enables the student, under a reasonable amount of stress, to perform in a controlled environment that interacts with the student. When the student makes a mistake in the ERDTS, the instructor can pause, review, and replay the scenario. The student, with instructor input, can discuss, self-critique, and formulate the best outcome, which develops experience prior to driving to an emergency.


Does a hammer replace a screwdriver? No. Both are essential items in your toolbox. Simulation training and actual driving build on each other’s strengths, but they also have their limitations.

Actual driving builds depth perception, spatial awareness, left- and right-side judgment, and an overall understanding of the vehicle’s dynamics. Working on a closed course allows the student to experience real vehicle handling in controlled conditions without moving obstacles. Yet, actual driving has its limitations.

Actual driving incurs costs of maintenance, fuel, and tires. Add the cost of repairs when mistakes are made or if objects are struck. Training for some conditions, such as inclement weather or heavy traffic, is nearly impossible, and trying to schedule it is even more challenging. Night-time driving conditions are rarely sought for driver training, even though 81 percent of fatal fires occur between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

With actual driving, the cost of time spent in having to “reset” the conditions for the next student is valuable time wasted and never exactly the same as it was 10 minutes earlier. Learning new driving concepts, such as tiller operations, can become frustrating and challenging when the student has had no real formal training prior to the road course; conceptual learning is slow, and the student’s retention of skills is diminished because of the constant resetting of the course.

Teaching a student how to safely and effectively negotiate a busy intersection against a red light and left of the center line cannot be taught legally when not responding to an emergency. Although emergency vehicle operators (EVOs) perform this daily, it is still considered a “high-risk, low-frequency” situation.

High-risk, low-frequency situations handled inappropriately can lead to serious consequences that place the student, instructor, and agency as well as the public in danger. As mentioned earlier, learning how to operate a vehicle during actual response to an emergency is the worst time to learn or teach.

Simulation is a powerful tool that ties together knowledge, skills, and concepts. Simulation enables students to make decisions on the road that will ultimately lead to their success as a safe, competent EVO.

ERDTS enable the student to perform in a multitude of situations and environments that can be easily replicated from real events. When students make a mistake or crash in the simulator, no harm is done and instantaneous feedback can take place, allowing the student to review, discuss, and draw conclusions on how to correct and change the behavior. Because the student met a negative consequence because of bad behavior, the bad behavior is soon eradicated.

When using ERDTS, the instructor does not lead the discussion but facilitates and directs the student’s thought process. The student then drives another scenario with the same type of conflicts, allowing him to accomplish the task correctly. This enables the student to leave on a positive note and helps to reinforce good behavior behind the wheel.

Limitations and Barriers

Most simulators replicate a real-world experience in a very high-fidelity environment. Force feedback from both the steering wheel and the seat helps to create a feeling of momentum and inertia, but the human brain is not easily tricked and still recognizes it as virtual reality.

Depth perception and spatial judgment can be difficult to develop for some. Though good for conceptual training, true vehicle dynamics need to be taught in a real vehicle. In addition, without proper acclimation or supervision, a large percentage of students have reported an effect similar to that of motion discomfort.

Some agencies have reported that the cost of the simulator system is prohibitive. When put in the context of real-dollar liability payouts from personal and property damage, however, the simulator suddenly looks more affordable. Agencies have employed cost-sharing programs in which members from several departments train on a single simulator.


Departments using ERDTS throughout the country have identified reductions in collisions, some using statistical data and others by anecdotal methods, but all have one thing in common—they were able to reduce their liability rate and the severity of collisions and have improved their standing within the community.

Table 1

The Fire Department of New York, Emergency Medical Service (FDNY*EMS) is responsible for delivering and coordinating all EMS activity within New York City. Averaging 614 ambulance tours per day, augmented with an additional 350 tours by non FDNY*EMS units, FDNY*EMS responds to approximately 1.8 million 911 calls for ambulances every year.

All FDNY*EMS personnel must attend and pass a 52.5-hour emergency vehicle operator course (EVOC) prior to graduating the academy. In 2003, FDNY*EMS and FDNY suppression took delivery of state-of-the-art driver training simulators.

Prior to obtaining the simulators, FDNY*EMS recorded an average of 700 ambulance collisions per year, with 40 percent occurring at intersections. After the first year of simulation training in the program, FDNY*EMS showed a 38-percent reduction in intersection collisions and was able to reduce intersection collisions to 20 percent of the overall collision rate, a 50-percent reduction when compared with training without simulation.

The Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department (LAFD) began its ERDTS program in 2006. Working with the city’s comptroller and auditors, it has been able to demonstrate a significant reduction in every area measured. LAFD showed a 63-percent decrease in litigation and a 98-percent decrease in litigation payouts.

The average cost of litigation payouts dropped from a little more than $8,000 to just under $500. Vehicle damage claims saw a 42-percent decrease that was measured over eight various types of collisions, including head-on, sideswipe, and failing to stop. LAFD Captain David Fabela stated that simulation training was a final and important piece of the EVOC program that enabled the department to accomplish its overall mission more effectively.

The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (CAPOST) is a statewide commission that ensures all officers in California receive proper and uniform training in law enforcement. CAPOST performed an exploratory study to determine whether ERDTS is an effective way to reduce police officer fatalities from collisions. CAPOST studied and identified key areas related to driver training; a few follow:

  • the extent of the problem,
  • elements that constitute an EVOC program, and
  • assessing the status of California’s existing Law Enforcement Driving Simulators (LEDS).

The CAPOST study analyzed training records with Department of Motor Vehicles collision data and studied more than 140,000 cases. A significant finding was that LEDS training consistently showed positive effects (i.e., collision reductions), whereas EVOC training did not exhibit the same degree of consistency. However, a combination of the two training methodologies appeared to be more effective in reducing collisions than either program independently.

The CAPOST study concluded that there was a four-percent improvement in driver performance when using the traditional EVOC course, an eight-percent improvement when using simulator training, and a 10-percent increase when using both EVOC and simulation.

CAPOST purchased 108 simulators and strategically placed them in 23 regional centers throughout the state. All peace officers are required to complete the LEDS program within two years.


We all have seen, if not experienced, a toddler playing games on his parents’ tablet or laptop computer, and you cannot walk down a street without bumping into someone engrossed in Web browsing on a phone. Interactive learning starts at the kindergarten level, and today online courses are the norm.

Insurance companies and safety organizations recognize that drivers under the age of 25 are more inclined to take unnecessary risks and fail to recognize the “big picture” when driving because of a lack of experience, and there are no consequences for continual bad behavior.

It has also been recognized that a young driver’s attitude and behavior behind the wheel are learned through association and imitation of other drivers, usually their parents or other immediate family members. But did you know that the association and imitation of driving patterns start at two years of age? Research has shown that the frontal lobe of the brain—which is responsible for, among other things, judgment, reasoning, impulsive behavior, and the realizing of future consequences from current behavior—does not fully reach developmental maturity until the age of approximately 25.

Many types of simulation are integral parts of EMS (patient care), fire (flashover), and police (use of force) training; an organization would be remiss to exclude them. The student of today learns through multimedia interaction—and expects it. The students of tomorrow will expect even more of it. Driver training and its objective of eliminating needless roadway fatalities in these professions should not be excluded.

Simulation adds more to the learning environment by providing control over the training conditions, safe training conditions, improved feedback and instruction possibilities, decreased time needed for training, and increased amount of knowledge transferred. Studies have shown that when simulation is integrated into a driver training program, the level of training improves significantly vs. driver training without simulation.


Simulation is commonly integrated into an existing program where traditional EVOC programs have downtime and can be reconfigured. Most students have plenty of downtime and help to set up, reset, and break down a cone course while waiting for their turn to drive. ERDTS can be integrated into the program without impacting existing operations and can serve as additional training space for students having trouble grasping concepts. It helps to balance the need for training and cost effectiveness.

Time Considerations

Surprisingly, students do not have to spend a lot of time on the simulator for each scenario. Because information disseminated during a lecture is very linear and broken down into several steps, time spent learning can be rather lengthy. That same information in simulation can be presented in real time, allowing the student to process complex information more quickly.

A student can complete several major training objectives in two to three minutes, whereas upward of eight hours of lecture would be needed to cover the same material. In simulation, the instructor is able to replay the scenario, empowering the student to critique his own performance.

The instructor draws out related issues and offers alternative solutions, thus guiding the student to the proper conclusions, building experience and enhancing future decision-making abilities. The instructor’s skill in using and applying the simulator tools is paramount to the success of each student as well as the overall training program. A skilled instructor can incorporate a peer review session during training in which other class members generate discussions on proper driving, protocols, and standard operating guidelines during each other’s driving critiques.

The simulator escalates the immediacy and intensity of the training event. The total time it takes to have the student drive, critique the performance, and then redrive a similar scenario with the same objective rarely takes more than 15 minutes.

Training Content

Basic driving skills can be taught on the simulator and then transferred onto the road course, enabling the student to understand and develop the concepts of mirror use and off-tracking without having to constantly stop and reposition or worry about damaging a vehicle. Students learn concepts faster, and information is retained longer.

During simulator training (depending on the number of systems available), students can practice either a single response or a networked response, in which students in multiple simulators converge on the same scene simultaneously in a virtual driving world.

Roadway command is an essential training component. The ability to read and redirect the surrounding traffic so the emergency vehicle can safely and effectively travel to the assignment is one of the most important aspects of emergency response driving.

Intersection analysis is another large part of simulation training. Intersections pose the gravest danger to the EVO and surrounding traffic. Thirty-four percent of all traffic collisions involving an emergency vehicle occur at a controlled intersection, and 74 percent of all fatal ambulance collisions involve the ambulance striking another vehicle.

Scene size-up. Students who learn in ERDTS are able to witness the flames, smoke, and explosions of a hazard as they unfold. Scene size-up is an essential component of tactical placement, and all responders need to be aware of evolving events and secondary devices. By creating these situations in the simulator, students learn by doing rather than by lecture. Departments using tabletop exercises can incorporate them with ERDTS to create training lessons that offer immense educational value.

Tactical placement at the scene. Whether it’s fire, EMS, or law enforcement, it is paramount that all have an understanding of where to place a vehicle to give personnel at the scene the best resources, protection, and most efficient use of equipment.

All four of these training concepts can be taught in a driving simulator before the student responds to his first assignment. All can be taught individually or in combination, such as in the following example:

Scenario: Police, fire, and EMS are responding to a motor vehicle collision on the highway. All three services use the same type of training in roadway command and intersection analysis. Tactical placement on scene dictates law enforcement students position their vehicles for traffic control, fire students position for extrication and wash-down, and EMS students position for safe treatment and removal of patients. Scenarios could be generated so that improper placement of other vehicles would force the student to identify the problem and select an alternative solution.

Risk management can be a difficult concept to learn: We have manuals and procedures that help define when to take a risk, but the act of risk taking remains a decision-making process in the moment. Understanding the how, when, and where of these situations helps minimize exposure to liability. Examples include terminating a pursuit for law enforcement officers or scene placement at hazmat, chemical, or violent scenes for fire and EMS services.

Hazard avoidance can be a low-frequency, high-risk situation. Teaching the student how to detect a hazard and how to avoid it can be a daunting process in the field. Simulation training enables multiple hazards to occur. The student develops muscle memory while developing a response to such situations. Hazards can be anything from something falling off the back of a truck in front of the student to another vehicle encroaching in his lane to having a tire blow out while traveling at a high rate of speed.

Radio communications can and should be incorporated into each scenario. From simple radio commands of response, on scene, and available to more complex transmissions of initial fireground reports requesting additional resources, all of which can be done as events unfold, they can be used in conjunction with training outcomes.

In some simulators, scenarios are exportable and can be incorporated into the lecture and test material, which enables the instructor to design an example of exactly what is being discussed. These videos can be incorporated into exams for driver and officer candidates.


It is important for instructors to master what they teach and to do what they preach. Instructors must be familiar with all of the controls and the different scenarios used. They must recognize and assess students’ needs and assist them to make their learning experience more beneficial.

Getting into a simulator for the first time is kind of like renting a car—sure, you’ve driven a car before, but not this particular one. The student must have time to become familiar with what all the switches do and when to use them. The instructor should take the time to point out major components (seat belt, transmission selector, ignition switch, parking or air brake, mirror controls, radios, emergency lights, and siren switch) before the student even starts the vehicle.

The student should be reminded that keeping a high visual view of the horizon and scanning both sides of the vehicle will help to make the experience in the simulator successful.


There are two fundamental ways of controlling events within the scenario: scripted and real-time changes. Scripted scenarios are created and installed by the instructor. This enables him to adjust the weather, daylight, and traffic conditions prior to the student training. Scripted scenarios are repeatable, allowing multiple students to drive the exact same training exercise.

Real-time changes enable the instructor to improvise during the simulation by changing weather and road (traction) conditions and daylight conditions and inserting instructor-controlled pedestrians or vehicles into the student’s driving exercise to prompt hazard or traffic issues.

Objective-Based Scenarios

Scenarios can develop a member’s understanding of department procedures and guidelines while continuing to reinforce the previous lesson’s objectives of safe vehicle handling. Emergency response scenarios incorporate a multitude of objectives; there should be one to three main objectives with several secondary objectives. Scenario objectives could include those listed in Table 2.

Table 2


Simulation should be used as a training tool, not as an exam. When students perceive that they are being tested in the simulator, they tend to drive simulator safe (slower than normal and hypersensitive to stimulus in the driving world). This is not realistic, nor is it beneficial to learning.

The student is not being tested just because the instructor holds a scoring sheet and ensures the student meets the minimum simulator performance criteria—evaluated, yes; tested, no.

When performing an after-action review of the scenario, the instructor should remain nonjudgmental and give the students an opportunity to explain their thought process. Take them through the event one step at a time; have them identify the variables that led up to the collision using a Socratic teaching approach. Use the synchronized video replay combination of head and hand position as well as the virtual driving replay to provide irrefutable proof of the events leading up to the discussion point.

What is important in simulation is that the students are “teaching” themselves. The fastest way to learn not to do something is by doing it and suffering the consequences. We all learn from our mistakes. In simulation training, the students can walk away from a horrific collision and learn what they did, what they should have done, and what not to do the next time. The instructor facilitates and directs student learning; students come to their own conclusions.

Once the students understand what they did and know how to correct it, giving them the opportunity to correct mistakes in another scenario that has the same type of conflict objectives allows for measurable results.


One experienced simulator instructor put new probationary students through a simulated response to an assignment: If they had a major collision in the intersection (most of them did), he would explain that they just killed their partner and would send the students home with homework. The homework was to write a detailed letter to the spouse explaining why their partner is never coming home again.

That may seem a bit harsh on the surface, but to really make a difference, training needs to be different. Bad behavior not met with consequences begets more bad behavior. Drivers seldom learn lessons from near-miss experiences. Instead, they develop a false sense of security, thinking they were able to handle the situation. Most drivers underestimate the task of driving while simultaneously overestimating their ability to drive.

Almost everything we do in life comes with feedback from others that lets us know how we are doing. Motorists drive without feedback. Although other drivers would love to share criticism, they rarely can. Hence, the majority of drivers get no feedback.

To eliminate bad behavior is to meet it with consequences. In real life, that can be costly and deadly. In a simulator, it’s free. But like everything else in education, simulation is only as good as the instructor teaching the material.

This learning experience alters your behavior behind the wheel and helps lower the risk of having a collision. One student returned to tell me about a response he was on. He said his simulator training helped him to predict the traffic patterns ahead and to avoid a collision because he had learned to anticipate that a car could be hiding in the location where it was on this response.


The big picture in driver training involves being able to read road and traffic conditions. Most programs do this through lecture and static photos. Coupling them with simulator training allows students to also experience the conditions.

Part of behavioral conditioning is changing the students’ mindset by having the students understand the consequences of their actions—for example, how individuals and families are affected over a long period of time after a collision. (See “The Ripple Effect of a Traffic Collision,” July 2011;


Determining the effectiveness of your simulator training program is important for several reasons: It establishes a benchmark for future efforts, enables you to compare outcomes pre- and post-simulation, and helps to unearth new areas for simulator training.

Data collection does not have to be complicated, but it must be done with the utmost of integrity. Remain ethical; do not let your preconceived ideas influence the study. Let the evidence take you to the end point. Having one principal investigator (PI) ultimately responsible for all aspects of the study and having him dissect the entire study into usable parts will make the study transition easier as it progresses.

If the department has purchased a simulator and is taking a hard stand on improving driver training and reducing collisions, administration will want to see results. Before they ask, be prepared to answer their questions. Data collection shows positive outcomes such as saving lives and preventing injuries, improving company operations, helping to identify real vs. perceived issues, and improving the bottom line by saving money and equipment.

Driver training simulation for emergency response operators advances the training paradigm to a much higher level because crucial, cognitive factors such as decision making, judgment, and multitasking now can become part of the curriculum. As more departments set up simulator training programs, the fire and EMS service as a whole will benefit.


1. Sowell, ER; Peterson, BS; Thompson, PM; Welcome, SE; Henkenius, AL; and Toga, AW. “Mapping cortical change across the human lifespan,” Nature Neuroscience 2003; 6:309–315.

2. Vanderbilt, T. Why We Drive the Way We Do (and what it says about us). New York: Borzi Books, 2008.

3. California Peace Officer Standards and Training (CAPOST) Driver Training Study – Volume 1. On-line: Published 2008.

4. National Fire Protection Association. NFPA 1002: Standard for Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, 2009 edition. Quincy, Massachusetts.

5. National Fire Protection Association. NFPA 1451: Standard for a Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program, 2007 edition. Quincy, Massachusetts.

6. National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. “Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives.” Online: Published 2006.

ROBERT RAHEB is a retired Fire Department of New York (FDNY) * EMS paramedic lieutenant and an EVOC instructor. His instruction using driver training simulators led to a 38-percent reduction in intersections collisions in the FDNY*EMS. He serves as the emergency response specialist for FAAC, Incorporated, which makes professional driver training simulators.

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