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County snowplow drivers prepare for the season

<i>Jon Echternacht photo</i> Veteran driver Brian Hurtgen takes a turn in a snowplow simulator in preparation for the coming winter at the St. Croix County Highway Department in Hammond.

Whether anybody wants to admit it or not, the snow season is just around the corner.

In preparation for those nasty days when the roads must be cleared early and sometimes often, St. Croix County Highway Department truck drivers took part in a two-day program in Hammond designed as a refresher course on the perils of the road.

"It's an annual safety refresher," said Jim Van Den Elzen, who heads up the Crossroads Safety Management Group and brought the sophisticated technical equipment that makes up the simulator to Hammond.

Three large computer screens depict the road as viewed from the cab of the truck. A regulation seat and reproduction dashboard replicate the feeling of being in a real truck complete with engine noise and hydraulics but without the diesel fumes.

The view on the computer screens gives every impression of snow-covered roads, rural and urban, with all the hazards such as a deer bounding across in front of the plow or a stalled car on the side of the road.

Van Den Elzen sets up the situation from a computer set well back of the action while an assistant guides the driver through the basics.

"Each session goes for about 10 to 12 minutes," said Van Den Elzen, who has operated the program since 2007. He said the rule of thumb from truck driving firms who use a similar system is that one hour of simulation equals four hours of driving.

The low carbon footprint is another advantage of the simulator. "No gas is used," he said.

Tim Ramberg, county highway commissioner, said last week's sessions were the first time the department has used a simulator.

"Having them here saves travel and gas," he said.

Ramberg said 69 drivers were scheduled for sessions over the two days including some drivers from municipalities and law enforcement departments.

"The simulator can be used for police car and ambulance training," said Van Den Elzen.

Veteran driver Brian Hurtgen tried his hand at a session on the simulator.

"It was very realistic. A very good refresher," said the 71-year-old Hurtgen who admitted to driving trucks since he was 16 or maybe 13 without a license.