"If it's good enough for pilots, why not drivers?" says Driver Safety boss and instructor Russell White. Photo Gallery
Learner drivers should be able to declare on their logbooks any time spent on computer simulators...
... with a qualified driving instructor, according to a leading road safety expert.
Fatality Free Friday founder and Driver Safety boss and instructor Russell White points out that for airline pilots to retain their licence they have to log hours on a simulator.
"If it's good enough for pilots, why not drivers?" he said.
White said time spent with a simulator could also open up learners to conditions they may not encounter in their required logbook hours.
"Tens of thousands of drivers around the country got their licence during the drought years without ever having to drive in the rain," he said.
His company's $35,000 driving simulator can subject learners to varied weather conditions and driving scenarios such as suburban streets, country roads, highways and commuter traffic jams.
White has adapted the Dutch-designed simulator software to Australian road conditions with local signposts.
He said Iowa University research in 2007 showed the number of crashes involving learner drivers who had also performed simulator training dropped by 70 per cent.
In a demonstration of the simulator's uses yesterday White put a learner and a young driver through distraction tests with chips, softdrink, mobile phone conversation and texting.
Year 11 student Jess Mills, 16, has had learner's licence for a month but has only logged two hours of driver training with her parents in her automatic Holden Cruze.
She struggled to stay in her lane when distracted with chips and drink, varied her speed erratically while talking on the phone and crashed into parked cars during the texting test.
Nick Bunney, 21, has had his licence for three years but has already copped a hefty speeding fine in his manual Suzuki Swift.
He hit a signpost and failed to give way in the chip and drink distraction tests, slowed substantially when talking on the phone and crashed into the side of van he didn't see when he was trying to send a text message.
White said these valuable lessons about driver distraction could only be taught on a simulator.
"People on the phone either drive too fast or drop their pace back and start to wander around in their lane," White said.
"This happens because people switch from a broad view and external focus to a narrow view and internal focus to concentrate on their conversation. When you switch over, your reaction times increase, your scanning process decreases, you get a fixed stare and your gaze drops. Our tests ave shown there is no difference between whether people are holding the phone or using a hands-free device. We've found a lot of companies now have an 'engine on, phone off' policy."
He said texting was the worst distraction as it not only diverted attention, but also averted the driver's eyes from the road.
A University of North Texas Health Science Centre study found that texting while driving was responsible for 16,141 US deaths between 2002 and 2007.
Bunney said the simulator distraction tests were "an eye opener".
"Texting is easily the most difficult," he said. "Trying to talk on the phone was easier, but some of the things I said just didn't make sense."
He named other driver distractions as friends in the car, the radio and "fiddling with CDs".
Mills said her parents used a hands-free phone for the car and rarely ate or drank while they were driving.
"I don't think I will ever use my phone in the car," she said.