Drivers train on simulator
Sheriff, deputies teach traffic safety
By John Faucher
The Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department and MS Driving Instruction sponsored a traffic safety course in New London Saturday, Nov. 2.
Passersby in the area couldn’t help but notice columns of bright orange cones in the parking lot and a number of county squad cars parked outside MS Driving Instruction at 775 Industrial Loop Road.
Waupaca County Sheriff Tim Wilz and Patrol Sgt. Clint Thobaben directed a field of young drivers to their training officers, Deputies Josh Krueger and Chad Repinski, Sgt. Andrew Thorpe and Capt. Todd Rasmussen who manned three separate courses and vehicles.
Wilz said the department has held similar events in the past at the Waupaca Regional Airport but this was the first time they brought behind-the-wheel training to another community.
Officers taught students why hand positioning on the steering wheel is important when reacting to driving situations.
On another course, officers coached students how to back into a space using cones as obstacles.
And on the third course students, navigated a serpentine path of cones, at low speeds, where they were directed at short notice to turn left or right to avoid imaginary objects.
At times MS Driving Instruction owner Becky Rodriguez cringed at the sound of crumpling cones.
Wilz grinned as he picked up the cones and straightened them out.
“They’re just cones,” he said.
“Obviously, we don’t have a skid pad here but, just going around cones helps them at least know how to handle a vehicle if they get off the edge of the road, or if there is an object in the road,” said Wilz. “Our goal is help them be better equipped to steer out of those types of situations.”
New London crash data
Wilz and Rodriguez first talked about partnering in some kind of road course for new drivers after the January 2019 Waupaca County Traffic Safety Committee meeting.
Rodriguez is the driver’s education representative on the committee that meets quarterly to discuss traffic safety issues.
She said in January, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation sent a representative to Waupaca to go over the most recent traffic data.
“At that meeting they said the zip code 54961 has the most traffic accidents for 16-18 year olds in the area,” said Rodriguez. “That doesn’t mean they caused the accident, but they were involved. In my opinion being part of an accident is also part of inexperience.”
According to WisDOT, teens account for less than 5 percent of all licensed drivers in Wisconsin, yet are involved in nearly 10 percent of all crashes.
Last year in Wisconsin, 29 teenagers ages 16-19 were killed and 4,342 were injured in crashes.
Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens age 15-18 in the United States.
Wilz said lack of driving experience and distracted driving are the leading causes in most of their crashes.
“Experience is the best teacher. At least with this course set up they will have something to go by,” said Wilz.
Teens often underestimate driving dangers and overestimate their driving abilities. Wilz said teen drivers also tend to take more risks.
Thobaben visits schools in Waupaca County to talk to students about those risks and their costly consequences.
Having personally lost a family member to a drunk driver, and having another seriously injured by an impaired driver, Thobaben speaks frankly to teens about the consequences of speeding, failure to wear seat belts and impaired driving.
“After 18 years of speaking to drivers in learning, I’ve had several approach me years later and thank me,” he said.
Rodriguez said after learning last January that the New London zip code had the highest rate of teen accidents in the area, she began thinking of ways to help curb the numbers.
“I started to look around at driving simulators, and Sheriff Wilz approached me about coming to New London to put on a traffic safety course,” said Rodriguez.
As part of the event, MS Driving Instruction hosted an open house inside the classroom.
Attendees, ranging from age 15 to 83 had an opportunity to test drive a new state of the art driving simulator Rodriguez purchased for her classroom several months ago.
“We’re the only school in Wisconsin approved to have a driving simulator mixed in with our training program,” Rodriguez said.
Students describe it as extremely realistic, nerve racking and unforgiving with its scores.
Rodriguez said they initially think, “‘Oh cool, a video game,’ but they quickly learn it’s not.”
The simulator can track each student separately, record their scores and provide a detailed report that can be shared with parents.
The simulator constantly gives the driver changing scenarios to maneuver as they drive. They might encounter random pedestrians or animals in the roadway, and even other vehicles running red lights.