Dealing with road trains

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Road trains can be intimidating for anyone on the road, but some simple tips will help everyone arrive safely.

WORDS Colin Kerr

They’re long, they’re wide, they’re high, they’re fast... and, if you’re not extremely careful when you mix with them, some dangerous situations can arise.

Throughout country Australia, and on the fringe of metropolitan areas, huge semi-trailers and road trains are a common sight. With high fuel prices and the need to move large loads fast, these giants with up to four trailers (also known as ‘dogs’) connected to the prime mover, are quick and efficient.

These giants on wheels are extensively used in the mining industry to transport ore, gas, equipment and fuel. In rural areas, they’re used for the movement of large quantities of stock and produce, transporting all sorts of goods. But these monoliths must be treated with caution and respect whenever they are encountered.

TAMING AIR FORCE

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Another aspect of road trains that most of us have experienced is the huge force of air turbulence (wind buffeting) against our vehicle as road trains thunder past in the opposite direction. This air pressure can be particularly dangerous if you are towing a trailer or caravan.

Over the years, many travellers have come to grief due to not being able to control the sway created by the force of air and suction created. In these situations, it’s a good idea to slow down a little before the road train reaches you and then maintain your acceleration and keep a firm grip on your steering wheel as it goes past. When meeting a road train coming towards you on a narrow, single-lane bitumen road, your best option here is generally to slow right down and pull off the bitumen (watch the sharp drop-off edges which can damage tyres at speed) and leave the sealed section for the larger vehicle. This will prevent flying debris and dust from their many wheels impairing your vision and possibly causing windscreen damage.

PASSING IN THE DUST

On dusty gravel roads, the only safe move for you to make is to get right over to the side of the road when a road train is travelling in the opposite direction to you, or coming up from behind to pass. Giving plenty of notice with your blinkers, simply pull over, slow right down and, if necessary, stop. Driving blind in a huge storm of dust with gravel and larger stones flying everywhere does little for the driver’s blood pressure or nerves, and can be just plain dangerous.

Turn your lights on (so you can be seen by any other traffic that might be around), wait for the dust cloud to settle and, when you’re able to see, you can safely continue your travels. In flat, open country on a gravel road, you can see the dust coming for miles as it billows into the air, and there’s plenty of time to pull over out of danger – but be wary of those coming up from behind.

PASSING ON THE OPEN ROAD

If you are travelling slowly on the open road and are being followed by a semi-trailer or road train that obviously wants to go faster than you do, simply maintain a constant speed, keep to the left (without leaving the bitumen) and the truck driver will select a safe stretch of road to pass.

Don’t be tempted to pull your left wheels off into the gravel at highway speeds, as all this does is throw up dust and gravel to the truckie, making things even more difficult for him. Slowing down with the truck behind you is also not generally ideal, as this causes the truck to lose momentum that he needs to safely overtake. When the truck is actually passing, keep a firm grip on the steering wheel and maintain your speed until he is alongside and, only then, very gradually slow down and ease further over to the left if you need to.

If, however, the truck is finding it difficult to pass (windy roads, double lines, etc.), be courteous, look ahead for a safe spot to pull over (giving plenty of notice with your indicators) and allow him to safely get past. This action will no doubt take a lot of pressure off you and will also help to make life out there a little easier for the hard working truckie.

Remember, also, that if you have a truck, road train or any vehicle close behind you, give plenty of notice if you are going to turn off (either left or right) or are about to pull over so that they can adjust their speed or line so that they can safely pass and not run into the back of your van or clean up the side of your van.

OVERTAKING

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When overtaking one of these monsters, you’ll need a very long, clear stretch of wide, sealed road. Use your blinkers and put your lights on to help ensure the truckie is aware of your presence, keep a firm grip on the steering wheel, watch carefully for any slight tail-swing from the rear trailer and be aware that you might experience some slight wind buffeting as you progress.

Once well past, use your left blinker to indicate when you are coming back to the left-hand side of the road. In this manoeuvre, don’t cut back too quickly (effectively cutting him off, sometimes even requiring him to lose momentum) unless you absolutely have to!

On gravel roads, trying to pass a road train through a cloud of dust is just plain dangerous. If the driver is aware of your presence behind him (have your lights on), he’ll often move over and let you pass (don’t forget to give him a wave), but otherwise pull over yourself and take a five-minute break to stretch your legs and let him get well ahead and you’ll enjoy your trip a lot more. With this, and all other situations involving large vehicles, always err on the side of safety.

COMMUNICATIONS

If you have a UHF radio, you can communicate with the truck driver (usually channel 40) in any of these passing situations and determine when it is safe to overtake or, if he’s trying to overtake you, let him know that you’re looking for a convenient spot to pull over and let him pass. On the back of your caravan or camper, it is also a good idea to have a sign that will alert truckies or other travellers to which channel you can be contacted.

WIDE LOADS

When encountering an escort vehicle coming towards you with a wide load following behind, slow right down, keep well over to the left and follow any hand signal instructions of the escort.

Be prepared to get right off the road and stop, if necessary, and also be aware that there may be more than one wide load being escorted. In fact, escort vehicles will often call you on their radio (UHF channel 40) when they see you approaching, verbally warning you of the wide load, sometimes even telling you the width of the load and whether you’ll need to get right off the road or just keep to the left.

If you are following behind an escort vehicle with a wide load ahead of him, stay behind, be patient and when it is safe to pass the pilot vehicle will wave you around. UHF radio communication is also worthwhile in these situations. And always remember to thank them when you are safely past.

BE AWARE

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Drivers should also be conscious of the fact that road trains are not as nimble and manoeuvrable as other vehicles and so reaction time for braking and cornering, for instance, is longer than it is for your vehicle. Try to make the allowances for these limitations both out there on the open road as well as when these large vehicles come into towns and cities.

In particular, if you find yourself in front of one, try not to brake heavily at intersections or traffic lights – they need quite a lot of time and distance to stop and being hit from behind with one of their solid bull bars and 100 tonne of weight will not be a pleasant experience! On the other hand, don’t travel too close behind them either, as the driver may not be able to see you in his mirrors if you are up close. If you can’t see his mirrors, he can’t see you!

Another thing, particularly in towns and cities, don’t try to overtake them if they are turning a corner – either left or right – as they need plenty of room (and have restricted vision) when making these tight manoeuvres.

SHARING IS CARING

When out in the country, another thing to keep in mind is to avoid parking in a truck rest stop unless absolutely necessary. These areas are for truckies who must take obligatory rest breaks. They are big, often very long vehicles and a tired truckie certainly doesn’t want to have to manoeuvre around you and your vehicle in a truck bay, particularly late at night!

Overall, remember, road trains play an important role in the economic development of the country and are a vital force in spanning the vast outback distances throughout the nation. They are big rigs for a big country, and if other drivers show them courtesy on the road and are aware of the dangers when encountering them, they are more unlikely to come to any grief.

Remember, these guys (and some girls) are out there doing a job and are not on holidays like most of us are when we encounter them! Be courteous and let them get on with their job and we can safely get on with enjoying our holiday.