PITTSBURGH -- After his oldest son's second car accident, Jim Dowdell began thinking of ways to improve traditional driver's education classes for teens. He decided the key was to let them hone their reaction times and accrue behind-the-wheel experience before they drove a car.
The father of five from Moon Township in Allegheny County contacted friends and family to help finance a company, SafeDrive Technologies Inc., which marries flight-simulator technology to driver's education.
Dowdell, a financial planner by trade, pitched his idea for a driving simulator to Loren Staplin, the principal partner of TransAnalytics, a company that studies traffic safety.
Staplin, whose company developed software for SafeDrive Technologies, said traditional drivers' education classes are flawed because they expect young drivers to master vehicles' mechanics and movements while remembering the rules of the road.
"The result is a young, inexperienced driver who has good vision and reaction time. But they can't anticipate problems because they haven't been exposed to them," Staplin said.
Drivers behind the wheel of a SafeDrive simulator experience the sensation of driving in various settings, including in a congested urban street or a desolate rural road.
The student hears the sounds of traffic, feels the vehicle accelerate and sees light poles and roadside signs flicker past the side of the car. Fog, snow and rain-slicked surfaces present obstacles along the way.
When the vehicle hydroplanes, the simulator gives the student the sensations of hydroplaning.
Each course, which costs $695, includes 30 hours of classroom training and 12 hours of simulated and real behind-the-wheel training. SafeDrive opened its first driving school center this week in Monroeville, about 15 miles east of Pittsburgh.