Virtual Reality lesson trains brains to drive safely around railways

Veteran Metrolinx transit safety officer hopes computer simulation drives home life and death lessons he’s taught for decades.

For long-time Transit Safety officer Peter Mohyla, after standing in front of countless kids since the 1980s, the advice previously given to one young child was chilling.

Mohyla had just offered up a rail safety lesson at the girl’s school, when she approached him. She wanted to know if what her mother had told her about trains was true.

“My mom says if I lie down between the rails, (the train) will go over me,” the student, who was around eight years old, told the veteran Metrolinx community safety officer.

He was horrified any parent could suggest such a thing, so he and the school principal took the girl aside. Mohyla, a grandfather himself, told her she would not survive if she tried that – and there is no playing safely around railway lines.

“You’re so precious. Everyone in this school thinks you’re all so precious, that it’s the reason why I’m here,” he explained to her. “We don’t want anything to happen to you.”

Peter Mohyla, stands with his arms crossed, looking at the camera.

Metrolinx transit safety officer Peter Mohyla has talked to countless students and adults over the decades, teaching them to be aware around rail lines. He now has another tool to use – VR video offered up by Operation Lifesaver. (Photo by Thane Burnett)

Mohyla started holding community and school rail safety sessions soon after joining what was then called Transit Enforcement, back in 1988.

Over a career that’s included multiple awards and citations for his outreach, he’s used overhead projectors, videos, expert-accounts, flip-charts, cardboard displays and his own very strong words to reach the young. Though it’s adults who often need to be set straight, including a father who was incensed after Mohyla took him to task after catching him putting pennies on rail tracks, alongside his own child.

Mohyla, and others who teach safety, have a new tool in their war against bad advice and questionable judgement. As the Ontario provincial chair for Operation Lifesaver (OL) – a national, not-for-profit organization dedicated to rail safety – he’s helping to launch Train to Drive, a virtual-reality experience to test whether drivers know how to safely cross railway tracks.

OL’s latest online video – which can be used on computers, mobile devices and tethered headsets – puts viewers in the seat of a vehicle that’s stuck on the tracks. Deciding what to do next is not a game.

Set against a world of electronic distractions for drivers and pedestrians, Mohyla hopes virtual-reality may be another tool to bring the danger home – to train brains as much as firm words delivered to an eight year old or a dad placing pennies on tracks.

As for Mohyla, he constantly heads out to create community conversations around railway safety. And after having done it for so many years, he now hears back from young adults who remember his talks from when they were young.

They routinely tell him that the lectures inspired wider conversations.

“You have adults who come up to you and say ‘You were at my school, and I saw your display. We took that information home, and I talked to my brother out of being an idiot and taking shortcuts,’” he recalls.

Though he has no idea how many limbs and lives OL, and his own outreaches, may have saved.

“How many? I wish there was a way to track that,” Mohyla considers.

“But if it’s one in a hundred, I’m fine with that. I can go home and say, ‘I didn’t waste my time.’”

Story by Thane Burnett, manager of Metrolinx editorial content.