Driving safely on dirt roads

By: Ron Moon, Photography by: Ron Moon

Dirt road driving comes at a four-fold risk to life: it’s time to get educated.

Driving safely on dirt roads
Before you head to the outback this year with your camper in tow, just think about your level of experience and capability

A few years’ ago, we were travelling back from outback South Australia and had only 10 or 20km to go before we hit the blacktop, when we came across a road accident in which a vehicle towing a trailer had rolled. We helped out, rushing one of the injured kids to hospital 80km away and then helped the driver get his stuff together. His first experience with a dirt road and a bit of loose gravel had meant the end of the family holiday but, luckily, nobody died. 

I’ve been concerned for ages about the lack of experience and skill of many people when driving on dirt roads. In the modern world and affluent country we live in, with more people living in our major coastal cities than ever before, few people get the opportunity to drive on dirt roads. Even less would be ‘experienced’ dirt road drivers.

I grew up in the scrub (Tennant Creek and Quorn to name just a couple of towns) and at a time when the bitumen ended on the outskirts of town. When we drove anywhere, it was on dirt and, even as kids our driving experiences were in ‘paddock bashers’ thrashing around a fallow field rounding up the sheep. I’m not saying we didn’t have accidents or put some old tin jalopy on its side or roof but, by the time we went for our drivers’ licence, we had a fair amount of experience at driving on dirt.

People today often don’t drive on a dirt road until they buy a 4WD or an SUV. By then, they might have five or 20 years (or more) of driving behind them, but their only experience on dirt was a lengthy detour on the Newell, some country highway, or along an access road to a friend’s hobby farm.

That doesn’t prepare them to drive across the Plenty Highway, along the Oodnadatta Track, across the Gibb or up the Peninsula Development Road, or any number of outback roads and tracks that crisscross this great country of ours. And towing a camper anywhere out here adds to the challenge… and the danger!

So when someone buys a 4WD or SUV, we implore them to do a 4WD training course, which teaches them how to use their vehicle in a range of obvious 4WD scenarios — but rarely are people taught how to drive on dirt roads!

And I have tell you, it’s a darn sight easier to kill oneself or a passenger at 90-100km/h on a dirt road than it is at 5km/h crossing a river or in a set of ruts! Sure, you can get into trouble in those real 4WD situations but, when you take the total driving picture into account, the 4WD situations make up just a small part of the time you are behind the wheel.

Luckily, the situation is changing with the latest driver training standards, which were approved a year or two ago by Four Wheel Drive Australia, providing opportunity for those who are interested. Still, that doesn’t make people do a dirt road driving course.

I for one don’t believe ‘dirt road driving’ should be a separate course, as few people can imagine they need to be taught such a thing. I can hear it now, people ‘with years of driving experience’, stating how they don’t need to be taught to drive on a dirt road.

The statistics – which claim drivers are four times more likely to die on a dirt road (per capita) compared to driving on tarmac – show otherwise.

So, before you head to the outback this year with your camper in tow, just think about your level of experience and capability. Let’s not add to those statistics!

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Check out the full feature in issue #88 May 2015 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.