I like to think I’m an OK driver. Might bust the speed limit now and then, but have been traveling—accident and ticket-free—for years.

So when my editor assigned me to write a first-person story about Spectrum Health’s new driving simulator, I thought I was on easy street.

I was. Until I hit the guy.

The new driving simulator, which is housed at Spectrum Health’s Integrated Care Campus at the East Beltline, provides a realistic rendition of various driving scenarios—scenic rural roads and manic metro montages.

I was cruising toward an intersection in a bustling downtown area when it happened. A pedestrian stepped off the curb.

My foot pounded the brake pedal.

Too late. Screech. Slam. Thud.

The simulated windshield shattered. The guy went down on the street.

Although no patients have yet used the new simulator, Timothy Thoits, MD, director of the Neuro-cognitive and Memory Disorders Clinic, said the technology will provide an objective test of driving skills, particularly useful for people suffering from dementia, traumatic brain injuries, Parkinson’s disease, peripheral neuropathy, multiple sclerosis and stroke.

He expects it will go into use this fall.

“We wanted it really for the dementia population,” Dr. Thoits said. “We have to tell a lot of people in our clinic that we don’t think it’s safe for them to be driving. They don’t care to hear that. This would be an objective measure of their driving skills.”

The Systems Technology Incorporated driving simulator consists of three large computer screens. The driver sits in a chair facing them and navigates the chosen course with a real car steering wheel and turn signal indicator. Mirrors are mounted on the outside of the right and left screens. As expected, the gas and brake pedal rest below.

The simulator takes some getting used to. The wheel is ultra responsive and any slight action will have an equal and not always positive reaction. I found myself drifting out of my lane on the country road route.

Laurel Packard, OTD, Spectrum Health’s clinical lead for occupational therapy, said the operator will give patients time to warm up on the simulator and get used to the feel before driving scores count.

Familiarity breeds safety. My reaction times improved. The rest of my driving simulator experience cruised on without incident, except for breaking the speed limit by a couple of miles per hour—have to admit, same thing happens when I’m cruising around the lake shore in my Sebring convertible.

“This is a fabulous new opportunity for Spectrum Health,” Packard said. “The visuals and the graphics are very appealing. It’s very high-tech. It will open doors.”

A full assessment takes about two hours. If a patient is struggling and unable to navigate the road ahead, the machine will shut down.

“We want to minimize frustration,” Packard said.

The machine measures the amount of time it takes for your foot to leave the gas pedal and hit the brake when different realistic driving scenarios present themselves—red lights, pedestrians, another car swerving into your lane.

It also tracks the amount of time you drove over the speed limit or outside your designated lane. And yes, it tallies the number of times you crash or wallop a pedestrian.

While the simulator provides the measurables, Packard said therapists and other health care providers provide the human side of the assessment.

“Driving plays a huge role in a lot of people’s lives,” Packard said. “We have to be very sensitive with our recommendation.”

Apparently, I scored OK—Packard and Dr. Thoits didn’t dive for my keys. But, I must admit, I did leave the simulator session more mindful of my street and sidewalk surroundings as I drove back to Spectrum Health’s downtown Medical Center campus.

Dr. Thoits said besides the obvious benefit of helping patients, he thinks many others will benefit, namely everyone else on the road.

“I think it will make the roads safer,” he said. “It’s always an issue of safety.”

Dr. Thoits said driving capability will no longer be in the realm of a health care provider’s opinion, but rather in measurable numbers from a high-tech simulator.

But the simulator is more than an assessment tool. It’s also a training, or retraining tool—for teaching stroke or head injury patients how to safely drive again.

Donors, who gave through the Spectrum Health Foundation, funded the machine, which is the first of its kind in the Spectrum Health system.

“We did our homework,” Dr. Thoits said. “There are Chevettes and there are Cadillacs (in driving simulator quality). We got a Cadillac.”

Dr. Thoits said before his patients get behind the simulator wheel, he will administer a written test for cognitive screening.

“Driving is a complicated process,” he said. “My paper-and-pencil testing indicates if people can process information. Can they go from step 1 to 2, 3 and 4. If they fail that, then they need to go through the simulator. I wouldn’t even refer them (to the driving simulator) if they pass.”

Dr. Thoits said certain events could trigger a referral to the simulator—such as if a patient is involved in a car crash or if he or she reports incidents of getting lost while driving.

“People don’t volunteer for this,” he said. “There are studies that show these programs do a very good job in identifying when there are concerns and if a person should be driving or not. We wanted to bring this technology to Spectrum Health.”

If you’d like to donate to support Spectrum Health Neurosciences programs and services, contact Katherine.Lax@SpectrumHealth.org or go to spectrumhealthfoundation.org to make your gift today.