Safety tips when sharing the road with semitrailers

By: Kath Heiman, Photography by: Kath Heiman

Despite the safety benefits of freighting by rail, the big wheels just keep on turning.

Safety tips when sharing the road with semitrailers
As overlanders, our experience of long haul travel invariably involves close encounters with big rigs

I commute around 80km a day along a major arterial road through a rural area at dawn and dusk. When I started travelling this route, I thought that my biggest day-to-day challenge would be avoiding stray wildlife. I’ve found, however, that sharing the road with semi-trailers is the most demanding aspect of the drive. 

And while I’m routinely sharing the road with 18-wheelers, I’m also driving directly parallel to a national railway line. But I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of freight trains that I’ve seen on it. 

So what’s going on?

In 2014, the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development issued a report indicating that rail transport accounts for about 49% of total domestic freight, while road freight amounts to about 35%. So, at first glance, this looks like a pretty reasonable balance between rail and road haulage.

But the statistics also show that 80% of recent domestic rail transport is associated with the growth in the iron ore and coal industries. Outside of these industries, only 9.8% of domestic freight is moved by rail, while road freight has quadrupled over the past 40 years.

So now there’s 210 billion tonnes of road freight moving 210 billion kilometres per annum, with the rate of growth projected to nearly double between 2010 and 2030.

That’s a lot of big wheels turning across the length and breadth of Australia.

A Divisive issue

There’s plenty of debate around the issue of road versus rail. The media tells us that the average accident risk for road freight is 20 times that of rail freight and that rail transport uses one-third as much diesel as trucks.

So getting trucks off the road has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 150,000 tonnes a year and to offer considerable savings to industry (ABC Radio, the Conversation, January 10, 2012). 

Nevertheless, it’s not hard to see why roads are still used so heavily for freight transport. Statistics indicate, for example, that average freight train speeds between Sydney and Brisbane are just 50km/h. While recent track and signals upgrades will increase the average speed to 65km/h, experts say that trains need an average speed of 80km/h to be a viable alternative to commercial road transport.

In parallel, freight is being drawn to the Pacific Highway, taking advantage of the recent upgrades and the associated increased efficiencies in road travel times.

Tips for sharing the road with the big rigs

As overlanders, our experience of long haul travel invariably involves close encounters with big rigs. How effectively we share the road depends in part on the extent of our preparation and attitude.

For example, we can minimise the suction and swinging forces of passing trucks by having a camper trailer that is the same size or smaller than our tow vehicle.

Other measures to minimise buffeting may involve fitting a sway control coupling device or electronic stability control system.

And once we hit the road, common courtesy goes a long way. Switch your in-vehicle UHF to the truckies’ channel 40. This will let the truck driver know that you’re there and, in return, he or she can tell you if the road is clear before you attempt to overtake.

Despite these measures, our experience of sharing the road with trucks can still be alarming at times. All it takes is an unsealed road, with a parabolic camber, and you can easily find yourself in extremely challenging conditions.

It’s such a pity that, as a society, we’ve become so dependent on getting what we want – right here, right now. And with the rail network under pressure and our consumer demands ever-increasing, it’s hard to see how trains can claim a better share of society’s ever-increasing transport demands.

The price of consumer convenience is the inconvenience of congested roads. It’s unfortunate that things are set to get far worse before they get any better.

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Check out the full feature in issue #87 April 2015 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.