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When the Dust Settles
When travelling in your RV, campervan, caravan or motorhome, sharing the road with trucks can be daunting. Here are a few simple rules to follow to avoid dangerous situations.
Words and Images by: COLIN and Prue KERR W7871

Sharing the road with a fleet of trucks can be daunting

We’ve all experienced it, haven’t we? That somewhat nervous feeling when we see a huge truck looming behind in the rear-view mirror, or bearing down towards you on a thin, narrow road, and that immediate ‘white knuckle’ grip that sees both of your hands solidly welded to the steering wheel.

Yes, it can be quite an unsettling and potentially dangerous situation unless you follow a few simple rules. For this feature we have spoken to several current and ex-truckies on what should and shouldn’t be done to ensure that sharing the roads with rigs of any size is an easy and comfortable experience without stress.

Throughout country Australia and on the fringe of metropolitan areas, huge semi-trailers and road trains are being seen more and more. With high fuel prices and the need to move large loads quickly, these giants with two, three, or sometimes four trailers (also known as ‘dogs’) connected to the prime mover, are quick and efficient and have a big job to do.

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

Some of these big rigs measure over 50m in length, can vary in  over-width loads from 2.5m wide and upwards, weigh well over 100 tonnes, and are capable of high speeds in flat open countryside. These days there are strict regulations governing speeds, travel permits and the necessity for escort vehicles accompanying unusually high and wide loads, but most road trains we seem to encounter are travelling up to 90 or 100kmph on the open road.

Looking firstly at gravel roads, if the road train is travelling towards you, the only safe move in these dusty conditions is to get right over to the left-hand side of the road, slow down, or 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 which may be around, wait for the dust cloud to settle and once again 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 in your dust - you can get quite a fright if you’re not alert. Remember, only slow down on these occasions once the truck has pulled out to overtake, as the last thing you want is for it to end up in the back of your vehicle, caravan or camper trailer.

Cattle road trains at Daly Waters NT

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 not being able to control the sway caused by the force of air and suction created. In these situations, keep to the left (still on the bitumen) and 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. That’s not only showing great courtesy to someone who is working, but it will also be less likely that he will spray you with dust and gravel, possibly causing windscreen or other stone chip damage.

If you are travelling slowly on the open road and being followed by a semi-trailer/road train that obviously wants to go faster than you do, simply maintain a constant speed, keep well 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 onto the gravel at highway speeds as all this does is throw up dust and gravel into the truckie’s face making things even more difficult for him.

A road train rollover

Again, slowing down with the truck behind you is also not generally desirable as this causes the truck to lose the momentum that he needs to safely overtake. When the truck is actually passing keep a firm grip on the steering wheel to counter any air turbulence or suction and maintain your speed until he is alongside and only then, very gradually slow down and ease further over to the left (still on the bitumen) 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. Once safely past, appreciative truckies will often flick their indicators (right and left) as a small but visible ‘thank you’ for helping them safely continue on their way. Remember also that if you have a truck, road train (or any vehicle really) 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 vehicle, van or trailer.

If you are travelling in convoy with other caravanners or another RV, please leave at least 200m to 300m between each vehicle. This will enable other vehicles (including trucks) travelling faster than you to overtake one vehicle at a time, rather than forcing them to (often dangerously) try to overtake two or three vehicles at a time.

When you’re following one of these big rigs and they’re doing 85 to 95kmph, ask yourself do you really need to overtake? Are you in that much of a hurry? If you do decide to overtake, always remember you’ll need a very long clear stretch (up to 2km) of wide sealed road to do so – do not try to overtake on narrow bitumen roads. If you go off the seal at speed it is a real recipe for disaster. When you can, try to overtake on flat ground or even uphill as the force of gravity will help to keep both the truck and trailers and your caravan or camper steady.

Trying to pass downhill can however, be more troublesome as, if you are towing a heavy caravan, it might push your vehicle and you won’t have as much control. Also the truck you are trying to pass will often want to use the downhill section to gain more momentum for the next hill, requiring you to travel even faster to get past him. When you are overtaking, use your indicators 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. Keep in mind also to have a plan to safely abort your passing attempt if you suddenly realise you can’t do it safely. Once well past, use your left blinker to indicate when you are coming back to the LHS 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! When you have overtaken the truck remember also not to just sit in front of him or slow down (unnecessarily). Keep moving away from him or it just defeats the purpose of overtaking in the first place and will annoy the hell out of the truckies.

Damage done to a caravan turning off Eyre Highway - this happened when following a road train

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 better. With this and all other situations involving large vehicles, always err on the side of safety.

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. Remember also when talking to truckies, make sure you establish that you are talking to the one in front of you, not another truck further up or down the road in totally different circumstances.

In other circumstances, if the truckie is 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 such as “UHF Channel 18” to show truckies or other travellers that you can be contacted on that channel, and if you do have a sign, then make sure you actually keep your radio on so that you can receive the calls. Remember also not to use channel 40 for general chatter between you and other RV travellers – use channel 18 and leave channel 40 for the trucks. You could even leave your radio on dual watch (scan) so you can pick up any communication on channel 40 or elsewhere.

Let the dust settle before overtaking

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 there is a Police vehicle forming part of the escort, then this is an extremely wide load and you must pull over and stop and remain there until the last escort vehicle has passed.

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. Just as a matter of interest, road train drivers (and escorts) often refer to caravans as ‘wobblies’! So if you hear someone calling ‘the wobbly’, chances are they’ll be referring to you if you have a van in tow.

Caravanners 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 is not 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 too close. Remember, if you can’t see his mirrors, he can’t see you.

Keep well to the left when road trains overtake

Another thing, particularly in towns and cities, is not to overtake a truck if it is turning a corner – either left or right – as they need plenty of room (and have restricted vision) when making these tight manoeuvres. Yes, we have all seen on large vehicles the warning signs “Do Not Overtake Turning Vehicle” – they are there for a very good reason. If you do try to squeeze past in these situations, there’s every possibility you’ll get squashed against the curb or sent bush, and it’ll be your fault. And that counts for dual lane roundabouts too.

Out there on the road where an overtaking lane is provided and  there is traffic behind you, keep left and let as many as possible, including trucks, safely pass you. Too often we see slow vehicles quite noticeably accelerate in these situations - very frustrating for those behind and obviously defeating the whole point of an overtaking lane.

When out in the country another thing to keep in mind is to avoid parking in a truck rest stop unless it is an emergency, and even then, way up the end and well over to the side. 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/caravan/trailer in a truck bay, particularly late at night, or be forced to illegally continue on to the next truck stop because holiday makers have cluttered up his original parking spot. Just keep out of these truckie stops and head to the next proper travellers’ rest area.

Playing with the big boys!

Overall, remember, trucks and 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 most unlikely to come to any grief. Remember, these truckies are out there doing a job and are not on holidays like most of us are when we encounter them. Be courteous and work together with them – let them safely get on with their job and we can safely get on with enjoying our holiday or weekend break.

Tags: Truck Safety Safe RV Campervan Motorhome Caravan Fifth Wheeler CMCA Road Road Train Overtaking Overtake Freight Rigs Cattle Pass Eyre Highway Rollover Dust UHF Channel 18 Trailer Radio Communication Caravanners Turning Vehicle Roundabouts Convoy Police Escort
Category: Features
Written: Fri 01 Mar 2019
Printed: March, 2019
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COLIN and Prue KERR W7871