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How Not to Die this Week

Country driving skills have almost disappeared - here are some

by Julian Edgar

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This article was first published in 2006.

The other day I did a 1500 kilometre drive on Queensland country roads.

And I couldn’t bloody believe how appalling the drivers were.

They created dangerous situations at almost every kilometre. They didn’t know how to pass; they didn’t know how to merge; they didn’t appear to have any familiarity with the needs other road users, like trucks or slower cars. After the first few hundred kilometres of witnessing this behaviour by nearly all road users – it didn’t seem to matter if they were males in their twenties or elderly women; they all made the same mistakes – I suddenly realised that they literally didn’t know any better.

To them it was ‘normal driving’!

So let’s take a look at country road driving, specific to Australia (and to right-hand drive countries) but probably relevant anywhere there are big open spaces. That most potentially dangerous of manoeuvres, overtaking, dominates.

Overtaking

Overtaking another vehicle on a two-lane road (ie one lane each way) is extremely dangerous.

Read that again: it is extremely dangerous.

It requires of the overtaking driver excellent vision, superb judgement and lots of skill. However, it’s also something where the dangers can be massively reduced by the use of appropriate technique.

Firstly, how not to do it. Nearly all the drivers I saw that wanted to overtake the car in front drew up close – so close that sometimes barely a few metres separated the two cars travelling at 90 or 100 km/h. Next, when they came to a straight section of road, they took some time before realising that there was an overtaking opportunity. They then lunged onto the wrong side of the road, saw that it was clear and put their foot down to start the overtaking manoeuvre. Then when they were only just past the car they were overtaking, they cut back in.

So, so bloody dangerous!

Click for larger image

For starters, closely following the car in front is just plain stupid. What if the driver brakes hard, as they might if they come across a tyre carcass shed by a truck? Or a wild or domestic animal strays onto the road in front of them? Secondly, if you’re up the bum of the car in front, you can’t see a thing. You can’t see the road ahead, let alone whether or not it’s clear of approaching traffic. And finally, if you’re up close, you haven’t the room to accelerate, to gain speed before undertaking the pass.

So let’s have a look at how it should be done. Teaching you to suck eggs? – maybe, but in all the passing moves I saw on that fifteen hundred kilometres, just two were done well. Yes, just two.

In the first place, you should never have got close to the slower moving car in front. You should have realised in sufficient time that the car in front was moving slowly and have either got off the throttle or turned off the cruise control, so that the closest you came is a three or four second gap. (Gap size is easily worked out by seeing when the car in front passes a roadside marker like a power pole or white post. Then count one thousand and one, one thousand and two, and so on, stopping when your car passes the same roadside object. Each ‘one thousand and XXXX’ is one second. This is a vital skill to practice.)

Sitting well back allows you to better see the road in front, so that you’ll be able to earlier see a straight and the presence or absence of oncoming traffic. It also means that if the person in front brakes heavily, you’ll have plenty of time to slow. Finally, it allows you to accelerate hard before venturing onto the dangerous side of the road.

When you see a suitable passing straight and the absence of oncoming traffic, check your mirrors to see if anyone is about to pass you and then accelerate at full throttle. (I accelerate at full throttle whether I am driving a 300kW car or one with 50kW.) Indicate and then pull onto the wrong side of the road, far enough back from the car that you are overtaking that you still have room to return to your side of the road if you find you have made a mistake! This latter point is vital, because you will not get a totally clear and unobstructed view of the road ahead until you have crossed into dangerous territory.

If the passing move is still on, either continue to accelerate at full throttle or reduce the throttle to maintain a good passing speed (it depends on the power of the car). If you have made a mistake and the passing move is now dangerous, abort! Indicate a left turn, check your left-hand mirror and blind spot and then slot back in behind the car in front – remember, if you follow the above approach, there will be room to do so. Maybe you’ll be a touch embarrassed, but you and your passengers, and perhaps the people in an approaching car, will still be alive and uninjured.

When passing, continue past the car that you’re overtaking until you can see them clearly in your central rear vision mirror. Unless the situation has become dangerous (and it should not have for the reasons stated above), do not return to your side of the road when you see the passed car in your side mirror – that’s much too close!

If you’re driving a low-powered car or you’re passing a long vehicle, the real trick is to time the full throttle acceleration so that you’re going fast (and still with the right gap to the vehicle in front to allow an abort) at just the time the passing opportunity arises. In other words, you need to spot passing opportunities well before they eventuate.

Merging

Click for larger image

Many single-lane-each-way Australian roads now have short passing lanes installed. (These are largely the result of the large number of fatalities that have occurred through passing errors – see above.) However, incredibly, I saw driving behaviour which made these safety devices almost more dangerous than traditional single lane overtaking!

Many of the same fundamentals apply in short passing lanes as in single lane overtaking, with the exception that you don’t need to leave sufficient space to abort the pass.

So:

  1. When you’re stuck behind slower traffic, watch closely for the advent of a passing lane (normally indicated by signs at 5, 3, 2 and 1 kilometres and 300 metres – the road builders are trying to help you!). If you accelerate only when you reach a passing lane, you’re mentally off the pace required on the road. (This is a good self-check – how alert are you staying?)

  1. Check that no-one is trying to overtake you, indicate, then pull into the overtaking lane. Accelerate strongly (more on this in a moment) and then move back into the other lane when you can see the overtaken car in your central mirror.

  1. Return to the exact speed that you will be continuing your journey at – not slower or faster. (This allows other traffic to see whether they should overtake you or slot in behind you.)

If you are well down a crocodile of cars all using a passing lane to overtake a single slower vehicle, don’t hug the car in front – leave at least a 2 second gap (the smallest you should ever have). If the car everyone is overtaking is doing 98 km/h and you want to do 100 km/h, and you’re midway down a long line of cars waiting to overtake, don’t do it! Even if you’re travelling a long distance, a 2 km/h difference is stuff-all – let the others go and then when the next passing lane arises, you can easily and safely do you own passing manoeuvre.

But why could a passing lane be dangerous? Two reasons. The first is that people are so frightened of exceeding the speed limit that they pass incredibly slowly. A 500 metre long passing lane where fifteen cars travelling at 100 km/h are trying to pass a single vehicle travelling at 98 km/h will end in tears. (See above – in this situation, simply don’t bother.)

Secondly, there is an astonishing lack of vision shown. The end of the passing lane is clearly indicated but people continue to pass when they should be waaaay off the gas, creating a gap that the left-hand lane vehicles (those in the lane that finishes) can slot back into. I don’t think there was a single passing lane manoeuvre I saw that didn’t end with brake lights coming on at the end of the passing lane. If you need to brake, you have made a mistake....

In the same way, don’t expect the slower vehicle to stay in the passing lane until they run out of road: that’s dangerous too. There could be traction-reducing loose gravel and rubber bits (“marbles”) at the very end of the lane at just the point the slower car will be trying to change lanes. More simply, having no road left allows no buffer for error.

Need?

Click for larger image

Finally, in a long country road trip, be aware of where you are on the length of road. If you know the road, excellent. But if you don’t, and you’re travelling by yourself, watch the signposts. If you have others in the car, have them occasionally read the map in a road atlas (a necessity for any trip over 400 kilometres). Why bother? Well, you need to know when your stops are going to occur. Stops for fuel, stops for food, leg stretch stops, stops for the toilet.

And if you’re going to stop in a short time, don’t bother overtaking! The number of people I saw perform dangerous overtaking manoeuvres, only to then be stopped getting a drink at the next town, was astonishing.

Conclusion

Safely driving long distances on country roads is an art. It needs patience, foresight, a good knowledge of your car’s characteristics – and skill. Skills can be learned – but only when the driver realises the necessity for doing so...

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