A different sort of road safety campaign

Posted on June 30th, 2007 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

1244_4mg1.jpgOver the last two or three decades we’ve seen just about every driver road safety campaign possible.

From overt blood and guts to more subtle psychology.

From a big stick to a plaintive plea.

From massive enforcement of laws never originally designed to be policed with such technology (technology that’s so superior to that of cars that manufacturers deliberately build in conservative speedos lest they be caught out), to changes in social norms that are quite radical to experience in just half a generation.

But one of the primary causes that I see of accidents is relatively little mentioned: the concept of driving to the conditions.

It may not be as confronting as drink driving or speeding, but it’s a fundamental of good driving. If you’re not observant of conditions: conditions of your car; of the weather; of other nearby drivers; of the road surface; of your own alertness, health and tiredness – well, you’re so much more likely to crash.

I live at the top of a small mountain, a plateau reached via a difficult, narrow, often treacherous piece of winding black bitumen. It’s a road I enjoy enormously; it’s a road I have on occasions driven very fast; it’s a road on occasions I have driven absolutely gingerly. It’s a road I respect because in the six or so years I have lived here, I have seen the results of a similar number of fatal, or very serious, accidents. Flowers on the guard rails; a Volvo upside-down in the valley; the mown-down fence caused by the truck that lost its brakes; the diesel spill and cliff impact of another truck.

And there, just a week or so ago, the upside-down mid-size front-wheel drive, the mid-forties woman driver ok but shaken, wrapped in a rug and being comforted by the people first on the scene. Now I don’t know the details of the accident, but considering the car, the driver and the conditions, I am quite willing to take a punt.

Firstly, the conditions. It was early in the morning: almost certainly, she was one of the many commuters who daily make the journey down, and then up, the mountain to attend work. The corner was the very first, tight, descending bend on the road. The atmosphere was foggy; the road wet – and wet after a long dry spell. Given the pedestrian car and – forgive me the stereotyping – the age and sex of the driver, I’d guess she’s not an enthusiast.

In fact, I bet she reached the corner, yanked-on steering lock like she does every other day, and the car understeered straight on. It then either tripped at the edge of the road and rolled, or through over-correction, ended up fishtailing into the same situation.

One the same road on the same morning in Frank-the-oversteering-EF-Falcon, I’d noted the conditions and, with my wife and young son in the car, had been treading super-cautiously. I’d put my foot down a few times to assess just how slippery the road was – something easily done without attracting attention and with zero danger – and had been driving warily. I won’t pretend that I was being incredibly conservative but – and here’s the key point – I had noted the conditions and had substantially changed my normal driving style.

I wonder if the woman in the rolled car had similarly done so? I’d be prepared to bet lots of dollars that she had not.

Exactly the same disregard can be seen for stopping distances and visibility on multi-laned freeways, where some insist on driving the same speeds and with the same vehicle spacing in blinding rain as in sunny and clear conditions. Or, on an individual level, people who push-on for that next 100 kilometres of the inter-state drive when they’d be far safer (and other road users safer as well) tucked-up in the bed of a motel. (Some of the best road safety signs I have ever seen are on the New England highway south of Brisbane that point out that while you might think you’re now close to Brisbane, you’re still2 or 3 hours away and a rest or sleep would be a good option to consider…)

It’s time for a major campaign that addresses driving to the conditions. Surely, no-one – road safety zealot, enthusiast, police, government, motoring associations – could possibly object?

3 Responses to 'A different sort of road safety campaign'

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  1. Asbjørn Bonvik said,

    on July 25th, 2007 at 4:51 am


    You have taken up one of my favorite topics.

    Here on the opposite side of the world, conditions change dramatically from dry, warm asphalt (Friction coefficient ~ 0,9) via wet (Cf ~ 0,6) through snowy (Cf ~0,4) to wet ice (Cf ~ 0,2). Still, the same speed limits are posted all year. If it were safe to drive at the posted 100 km/h on the freeway in the snow, 200 would be exactly as safe on a summer day in terms of stopping distance (including reaction time). Or, if higher speeds than 100 really are unsafe in summer, then 65 should be an absolute max in the snow.

    In fact, my insistence on driving to the conditions saved at least one life just last Monday. I was driving home from vacation with the family VW Caravelle, fully loaded with family members and the usual vacation gear. It was raining heavily, and I was entering a roadwork area on the freeway. One side of the freeway was closed, and there was two-way traffic on the remaining side, which effectively worked as a stretch of two-lane highway in the middle of the four-lane freeway. Traffic from side roads was merging in through lanes marked with traffic cones and “Yield” signs.

    The speed limit was reduced from 100 to 80 in the roadwork area, but given the pouring rain, complex traffic pattern, and vehicle I was driving, I felt 60 was a far safer bet when approaching one of these merge zones. Sure enough, a person exactly matching the demographics you describe above (mid-forties woman in a mid-size Opel Vectra) did not notice several large “Yield” signs, nor a prominent sign saying “Traffic safety is your responsibility”, but cut in a few meters ahead of me without realizing that she in fact was merging into a freeway. Since I saw that she was not slowing down, I stood on the brakes and eased towards the middle of the road, all the while staying out of the way of oncoming traffic. Our cars touched essentially sideways at minimal relative speed, before immediately springing apart again. The damage was limited to a small dent on the side of each car.

    If I had been going at the posted speed limit of 80 at the moment I realized that she was ignoring the yield sign, I estimate that I would have hit her driver’s door with the front right corner of the VW bus, carrying perhaps 60 km/h on impact. That would have parked the front fender of the heavy Caravelle somewhere in the passenger seat of her old Vectra, which would have completely demolished the driver seat and its occupant on the way there. Or, I might have lost control of the bus trying to avoid this scenario, instead going sideways into the oncoming traffic, with equally horrible consequences for me and my family.

    Do some simple calculations of stopping distances from different speeds, with different reaction times and friction coefficients. Then do some simple reality checks of your own reaction time at different times of day and in different mental states. That will change your driving habits forever. You may still be picking up quite a few speeding tickets on those magical dry, sunny Sunday mornings, but at least you will feel better about it, and you will be much less likely to wind up as the unfortunate subject of graphic front page news.

  2. Chris S said,

    on July 25th, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    I agree emphatically.

    Last night coming home from work I was following the stereotypical middle aged woman (and of Asian decent) driving what looked to be a very new Lexus 4wd. In the course of the trip home I noted the driver accelerate rapidly from lights and darting lane changes. The general feeling of unease and a desire to protect my own new car settled in so I allowed for extra distance between our cars.

    We come to a section of 4 lane road that goes over a rail line then turns sharply to the right over a ridge to follow the train line. It was around 8pm and the roads were damp from earlier rain. The other driver is in the centre lane, my self in the outside (or inside,?!). As we approached that corner it was obvious the driver of the Lexus had failed to note the conditions and slow down. As the car started to negotiate the corner the front end understeered, next the brake lights come on and the car skidded crosses my lane and ploughed straight into parked cars.

    As witness to the accident I assisted the driver and waited for police to arrive on scene. When asked by the officer to describe the accident I stated quite clearly the failure of the driver to drive to note the condition of the road and in doing so attempted to negotiate the corner at to great a speed. The office appeared amused and when asked what I thought of the conditions of the road I responded, “Damp and slippery, slow down”

  3. Jason said,

    on July 26th, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    Chris S,
    What were you thinking…

    She was in a 4WD, of course she doesn’t have to drive to the conditions *smirk*… she is invincible !!!!

    Just look at all the brochures and sales babble about 4WD / AWD being far superior to RWD / FWD – and giving unparalleled grip… why on earth should a little rain mean she should slow down ???

    /sarcasim off….

    Here is my case in point….
    I was helping a family member recently who was looking to replace an aging family (Honda Accord) car that had served their family well for the last 8 or 9 years and suggested they visit the local Subaru dealership and test drive a Liberty sedan.
    I tagged along for the novelty factor and was astounded to hear the the Subaru salesman sell the merits of it’s AWD technology by saying “AWD is far better in the wet becasue you don’t have to be as careful when cornering”

    I chuckled and cut in saying “Of course you have to be more careful, ignore that stupid comment” much to the salesmans surprise and disgust….

    Ohh, BTW, she ended up with an Accord Euro after sampling the Liberty, Mazda 6 and Epica…

  4. Gordon Drennan said,

    on July 26th, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    OK, I’ll play devil’s advocate. Saying “drive to the conditions” is like putting a tyre pressure placard on the car that says “do not overload or underinflate tyres”. We know what it means, but to someone reading it who doesn’t already know what it means they still don’t know after reading it. The words used in and of themselves do not mean anything. You have to already know what they mean to know what they mean. That why, like speed limits, the tyre placard has specific numbers on it. Do you think the drivers who crashed in the previous posters’ stories wanted to crash? No, the problem was they didn’t understand enough about the task they were performing to recognise that they needed to adjust how they performed it. And “drive to the conditions” wouldn’t tell them any more than they didn’t already [not] know.