Snowplow drivers take to the roads at unfavorable hours and when conditions are their worst. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is using a new mobile state-of-the-art simulator to make sure they are ready for the job.

Looking kind of like a video game on steroids, the simulator replicates conditions plow drivers are likely to encounter while cleaning the streets — everything from light snow to a pounding blizzard with common hazards such as cross traffic, pedestrians, road signs and low clearances mixed in.

The simulator controlled by five computers and featuring four 55-inch monitors is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. MnDOT spent $670,000 and hired Doron Precision, a New York firm that got its start by developing flight simulators for pilots, to create the vivid graphics that accompany each scenario. Steering wheels and controls that drivers use to operate the plows and blades while in the simulator are identical to those on MnDOT's 30,000-pound orange trucks.

"It's very realistic," said Andrew Kubista, MnDOT simulator program manager. "It is like being in a real snowplow."

The goal is for drivers to learn and improve their ability to recognize and react to a variety of road conditions.

"When we run through scenarios and they make a mistake in here and it causes an accident, they have not hurt anybody," Kubista said. "No vehicles have been damaged; no damage to MnDOT property; we've saved money; and we have not had to take a truck out and run the physical risk of having an accident."

With the simulator, he added, "We [can] talk about the decision they made, what they would do next time. Then we have them try it again."

MnDOT will use the simulator, housed in a trailer, for the first time Monday when it takes it to Bemidji to train its first set of drivers. Over the course of a year, most of MnDOT's 1,700 snowplow operators will go through a four-hour training session. That includes veterans and the 80 to 200 new drivers that MnDOT hires each year. Another 1,300 county, city and Department of Natural Resources drivers also will be trained, Kubista said.

MnDOT has used plow simulators since 2008, but they operated on outdated technology and have been taken out of service. The old simulator also needed a supply source. The new simulator has its own generator, so training can be done anywhere. It also will be able to handle future technological and software updates.

Simulators, Kubista says, have paid dividends. Since their inception, there have been fewer crashes involving vehicles and snowplows. And severity of crashes has been reduced.