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Insurer backs driving simulator system

Former Canadian marketers develop programs. First retail outlet now open at Mississauga mall

JIM KENZIE

Want to save money on your kid's first car insurance premiums?

Then stop complaining that he spends too much time playing on his computer, because computers may be the next wave of driver training.

My 17-year old starts his Young Drivers of Canada course this summer. But like most of his contemporaries, he has already racked up tens of thousands of kilometres of driving experience on computer games.

Mind you, it may not have been the best possible experience — these games are mostly crash and burn. And when you do make a mistake, nobody hurts, nobody dies, no sheet metal is harmed. The ESC key forgives all.

But the technology is now here to finally make simulators a meaningful part of the driver training process.

Certainly, simulator use is well-established in other areas. Airline pilots get retrained every six months on simulators — ever wonder why their crash record is vastly better than that of car drivers?

The first Canadian military pilot squad to win the team trophy in the American Top Gun competition had never previously fired a real missile. All their training was on simulators.

Jacques Villeneuve set pole position for his first ever Grand Prix at the fabled and daunting Spa Circuit in Belgium, largely based on previous experience gained on his video game.

So why not teach regular drivers to drive on simulators?

It's a question Graham Stokes of Guiding Lights Technology of Richmond Hill tried to answer almost seven years ago as he adapted a truck driver training system to automobile use.

But the market didn't seem ready.

Now, another company called Drive for Life is taking a shot at it, and they have a powerful ally in one of Canada's biggest insurance companies.

Drive for Life was formed by John Williamson and Paul Chadder, former Procter & Gamble of Canada executives who felt they could apply their marketing skills to a totally different industry.

They lit upon driver training simulators almost by, well, accident.

Williamson's father was in his early 80s; Chadder's daughter was approaching licence age. The two men realized that both ends of the driver experience spectrum could benefit from a better way to learn or refresh their skills.

They discovered an American company called L-3 Communications, which had extensive experience in computerized simulators, primarily for military applications, although they did have some software for civilian use too.

A deal was done. L-3 would build the gear; Drive for Life would develop the software and market the service.

Simulators obviously give the student a chance to experience a wider range of conditions and challenges than can be safely presented in a real-world training situation. For example, if you're taking your lessons in July, how are you going to practise on snow?

Drive for Life enlisted the aid of driver trainer Malcolm Elston — no stranger to this section, especially the letters to the editor page — to help develop more and more complex scenarios to provide a more realistic training experience.

The New Driver program is aimed at drivers who have had their G1 licences for from one to three years. They have some driving experience, they know what the steering wheel, brake pedal and gas pedal do. Five one-hour lessons combine classroom and simulator sessions. The cost is $499.

Specific programs have also been developed for seniors and corporate clients.

Drive for Life figured if simulation did make drivers safer, then surely the insurance industry should reward them with lower premiums.

They approached Royal & SunAlliance. Just this week, Shawn DeSantis, vice-president for personal insurance for Royal & SunAlliance, announced that the company (along with affiliated companies Western Assurance and Ascentus) will offer a 30 per cent premium discount for a newly licensed driver who has taken the Drive for Life course, 19 per cent in the second year, and 15 per cent in the third and fourth years.

This is in contrast to the 10 per cent discount for having taken an approved conventional driver training program.

They quote an example: a 17-year-old male, living in Mississauga, listed as an occasional driver in his parents' 2005 Toyota Camry, could save as much as $300 in the first year. In other words, over and above whatever reduction in injuries or crash damages might ensue, the program can pay for itself in as little as a year and a half.

Drive for Life spurred Royal & SunAlliance to develop an umbrella concept called StartSmart, which will incorporate a variety of products aimed at families with young drivers.

"Young drivers make up only 13 per cent of the driving population, yet account for 22.6 per cent of driver fatalities and 24.6 per cent of serious driver injuries," said DeSantis. "We want to do whatever we can to reduce this toll. We're parents too."

Royal & SunAlliance has teamed up with the Smart Risk organization, which will conduct a study of a group of the first students to take the Drive for Life course, to quantify the results.

I tried the simulator, located at the company's first retail outlet in the Sheridan Mall on Erin Mills Pkwy.

It consists of what appears to be a Ford Taurus cockpit, with three big TV screens, one directly in front of the driver, two others on either side.

The trainer can dial up a variety of driving situations, such as urban, rural, freeway, and throw in snow, fog, night-time, slippery roads, all with a flick of a finger.

While the view you see on the screen does dip when you apply the brake pedal, this is not a full-motion simulator like the pilots use. But it is realistic enough that a lot of people experience a bit of queasiness. I did, and I don't get car sick. But you soon get over this.

The graphics are pretty good. Although they are not as good as the best video games.

The controls are about as good as the best video games. While they are not completely realistic or perfectly weighted, they are close enough to be useful.

It's a little difficult for an experienced driver to know what all this would feel like to a neophyte.

But Drive for Life is confident that they have a breakthrough tool here. Perhaps more important, a major insurance company thinks so too, and is putting its money where its mouth is.

If the Smart Risk study proves these benefits are real, won't governments everywhere have to make simulator training a mandatory part of getting a driver's licence?

It would sure get my vote.

For more information, contact Drive for Life at 905-822-0111, or visit http://www.driveforlife.ca

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