I turned the key and the snow plow roared to life. I strapped on my seat belt, turned on the flashing beacons and I started rumbling down the road, pushing snow out of the way and making a path for motorists who drove behind me.

All that was missing was a radio squawking in the background, perhaps playing a rendition of the Gear Daddies' "I Want to Drive a Zamboni." (Substitute snow plow for zamboni.)

Only thing was I wasn't actually in one of those orange behemoths. I was inside the Minnesota Department of Transportation's new, splashy simulator that the agency will use to train drivers throughout the state.

In my brief time at the wheel, I took out a highway information sign, smacked into a concrete median and did a great job veering off the freeway and creating an off-road trail to lead motorists right into the ditch.  And all that was without operating any of the gears and levers that control the blades, mirrors and other moving parts.

Thankfully, that was only a test. Had it been the real thing, I would have totaled the 30,000-pound truck and been a menace on the highway.

"Better keep your day job," a MnDOT spokeswoman joked. Oh, such sage advice.

Controlled by five computers and featuring four 55-inch monitors,sitting at the simulator -- the first of its kind in the nation -- is a lot like playing an oversized video game. Screens with vivid graphics depict the array of adverse weather conditions and hazards that plow drivers encounter in the real world: snow, wind, icy roads, whiteouts, nightfall, traffic, pedestrians and low clearances.

But unlike a video game, there is no reset button. One wrong move in the real world could result in anything from a minor mishap to a deadly crash.

"I could put the truck on its side," said Andrew Kubista, MnDOT simulator program manager.

Thankfully, I didn't, but the point of the simulator is to be sure the 1,700 plow drivers who work for MnDOT and as many as 1,300 drivers who plow for cities, counties and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources don't either. The goal, Kubista says, is to give plow drivers another tool to help them develop the skills in a laboratory setting that can be used on the real roads as conditions change and potential tangles pop up in an instant, such as motorists who crowd plows or slide through intersections.

"We can create a pressure situation and see how  they react," Kubista said. "We [can] talk about the decision they made, what they would do next time. Then we have them try it again."

With a lot more practice, maybe I could make this a second career. But for now, I'll leave that to the professionals, and heed their advice: "Stay Back and Stay Alive."

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