2014 was a good year on our roads. Australia’s road toll fell to its lowest level in almost 70 years, with the national rate of deaths per 100,000 people falling to its lowest level since records began 90 years ago. The total number of fatalities on our roads was down 3.1% on the year previous, marking the lowest number of deaths since 1945. Surely this is cause for celebration, right? I’m not so sure. Because even though 2014 was a fantastic year, a total of one thousand one hundred and fifty-six Australians still lost their lives on our roads – and in my opinion this is still too many.
1,156 deaths equals roughly 1,156 families affected – parents who lost children, brothers or sisters who lost siblings and husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends who lost their partners. It is also said that today people have an average of 200 friends on Facebook. How close the friendships are is another matter, but the total number of people affected from just one death is several magnitudes higher.
Looking at the downward trend in the total number of deaths, it is clear we must be doing something right. But what exactly are we doing? Is it the increase in fixed and mobile speed camera locations and the Police presence on our roads that are both responsible? I think the real reason is down to vehicle safety systems, like the ever increasing amount of airbags and technology fitted to new cars, such as traction control, stability control, seatbelt pre-tensioners and accident mitigation systems. Each years cars in general get a little bit safer, and as a result the death toll drops a little bit lower.
I’d be far more interested to learn of the raw accident statistics year on year – as to how many cars were involved in accidents in general, not just the ones where one or more persons died. Because I’d bet my house that it is increasing. Perhaps, thanks to technology, an accident which would have previously been fatal now only ends up causing injury. Australian Police take every opportunity to drill into us that ‘Speed Kills‘, a blanket statement which in my opinion sends the wrong message. While it is true that the faster you drive, the higher the chances are that you could be involved in an accident and or be killed, there’s many other factors at play here which can’t be ignored.
The first would be the conditions of our nation’s roads. I’ve been all around the country and there are simply too many “undivided highways”, or as you might better know them, a usual two-lane road with a 100km/h speed limit. What puzzles me the most, is we’re expecting vehicles to drive at speeds of 100 km/h, towards each other with nothing but a painted white line separating them. Often, these roads are poorly surfaced, marked with pot holes and with poor visibility, due to long grass by the roadside. Best case scenario, you’ve got a 1.5m between both vehicles and they pass without an issue, worst case, one strays into the path of the other and you have an accident with a combined 200km/h impact force.
As Australians there’s little we can do to improve the roads ourselves. Sure, we could lobby the Government to ‘fix’ them – but in the end you have to accept that there’s just 24 million people across this expansive sunburnt country, and with only a certain percentage of us employed and paying taxes, the sad fact is our government simply doesn’t have the money to fix them all. As a result many roads will remain dangerous and people will continue to die. Now I understand that, as humans, none of us are perfect. From time to time we will make mistakes, and no matter how many rules or regulations we have on the road people will inevitably find ways to kill themselves by accident. So what can we do? Well I think it’s rather simple – we need to arm ourselves with the knowledge, skills and abilities required to recognise the risks on our roads and then deal with them in order to stay alive – and that starts with driver training.
Whilst learning to drive, we of course cover all the basics – acceleration, braking, steering, shifting gears, checking our mirrors and understanding / obeying the road rules. But when you consider the speed at which we’re driving, say 110km/h, we’re actually passing over 30 metres of road every second – and if something goes wrong the majority of us have not received adequate training or experience to properly deal with the situation. For every action by a driver there is a reaction from the vehicle and tyres that will occur, and it’s knowing how your vehicle will respond in any given situation that is the critical issue. As drivers, we learn through experience – I’m sure you’ve personally been in a situation where you’ve lost traction on a wet road, either through accelerating too strongly or turning too sharply, but there’s only so much you can learn on the road without getting yourself seriously hurt or killed in the process – and this is where driver training comes into it.
Now I’ve always considered myself to be an excellent driver, knowing the limits of my vehicle and driving within them to ensure control is never lost, but as a result my experiences with actually losing control and then regaining it again was extremely limited. I’ve experienced buttock-clenching understeer on roundabouts and also heart stopping oversteer whilst trying to put the power down out of a turn – both in the wet. Most of these incidents were at low speeds and I was able to get myself out of trouble relatively easily, but should something more serious of happened, perhaps I wouldn’t have been armed with the skills to deal with it in the most efficient manner possible. I took it upon myself to rectify this issue, and promptly booked a skidpan training session with Safe Drive Training in Brisbane. Seeing as the most dangerous aspect when it comes to vehicle accidents would have to be loss of traction, the 4 hour session lets you learn through experience how to recognize and control skids and covers everything from driving vision, steering and posture, through to recognising understeer and oversteer conditions, skid prevention techniques, skid control and balancing your vehicle on the limit.
The session, which used the Queensland Government’s Mt Cotton driver training facility, provides a safe environment to test the limits of your vehicle and indeed your own skills. Participants are given the option of using their own vehicle for the day, or paying a little extra in order to use the SDT Toyota 86. Whichever option you go for, and no matter what vehicle you own, there’s a great deal to learn by driving in an environment such as this. The track itself is a figure-8 style arrangement, complete with a full length water sprinkler system and large amounts of run off space to ensure it is nigh on impossible to hit anything.
Starting out using my own vehicle, a 2012 Kia Optima, I quickly found out that like most other vehicles manufactured today, the Optima has been set up to understeer on the limit as it is considered safer than oversteer. Not that understeer is ever safe – turn into a corner too fast in the wet and understeer will cause your vehicle plough on straight ahead. In a real world situation driving at speed on a wet road, it could potentially be fatal. Regardless, there were still lessons to be learnt – such as at what point does understeer begin to happen and ultimately what you need to do to stop it. Learning how to manage oversteer on the other hand, is far more useful for those who drive rear-wheel drive vehicles such as Falcons and Commodores. In order to experience this properly, I had a go in the Toyota 86.
On the skid pan the 86 was a completely different animal. The light weight of the car, coupled with its narrow 205 tyres meant it didn’t take much provocation to become unstuck at relatively slow speeds. Put a bit too much power down through a turn and the rear of the car swings out – something which might feel alarming to some at first. But given the slow speeds at which it is happening, it quickly becomes comfortable, giving you a chance to learn how to get out of an oversteer situation or even hold the car in a drift. Such training gives you an amazing amount of insight into what happens in a vehicle when you surpass the level of grip available on the road beneath you. It gives you an appreciation of just how quickly things could go wrong on the road if you don’t drive with care and to suit the current weather conditions. All too often you see people driving in the rain in exactly the same manner they would in the dry – and it is this which is the greatest cause of concern.
With the training session at an end I got into my car and headed home, with thoughts from the day going through my head. I think that while the benefits of driver training may not be readily apparent, its the added driving knowledge and skills that you walk away with that may one day save your life or that of a loved one. Anything can happen on the road and it least now you might be ready for it.
It also makes me wonder why such training isn’t mandatory for everyone who wishes to obtain a drivers license. We all have a vested interest in road safety. We all want to make it home at the end of the day and we want the same for our loved ones. Last year far too many people died in single vehicle accidents, and I believe the only way you can teach people to properly respect the road, the capabilities of their own vehicles and their own abilities, is through driver training.