Distracted drivers behind the wheel

By: Kath Heiman, Photography by: Kath Heiman

How can we engage commuters in the peak hour rush?

Distracted drivers behind the wheel
The challenge is to get the road safety message deep into drivers’ psyche so that it’s applied — without thinking — every single time we take to the road

How big does a camper trailer have to be before it’s seen? I know this might sound like a pretty strange question, but I’m really beginning to think that driver awareness around this fair nation needs a bit more work.

Unfortunately, our family had little choice but to transit through Sydney with our camper trailer recently, at about the same time as the majority of the city, who were dozing behind the wheel on their morning commute.

Driving among commuter traffic always has its hazards. Whether its drivers grappling with a bacon roll at the wheel, fixing their makeup in the rearview mirror, checking texts or reaching for their coffee. We’ve all seen it. These people seem to operate on ‘auto pilot’ – applying little thought to their driving and relying on reflexes to get them to work safely.

The problem is that operating on auto pilot leaves drivers oblivious to what’s going on around them. And that includes being unaware of their responsibilities to create the conditions under which you and I can manoeuvre our rigs safely on congested roads.

I’d assess there are few things that focus a driver’s mind more clearly than pulling a camper trailer through traffic. We suddenly become acutely aware of how much towing reduces our braking performance, rear visibility and manoeuvrability. The size and weight of our rigs becomes very real. In response, we avoid sudden lane changes, look further ahead than normal to allow us to react to traffic and road conditions, and take measures to accelerate and decelerate as smoothly as possible.

Some car drivers think it’s okay to cut into our braking distance, overtake on the inside, or squeeze past us on curves ignoring the inevitable risk of being side-swiped as our trailers cut the straightest line through the bend. If I were them, I’d be a bit more careful. After all, in a metal-on-metal encounter, I reckon our fully loaded four-tonne combination of camper trailer and HiLux, bristling with side rails and bullbar, would win the argument. But I’d really rather not get into an altercation in the first place.

So what’s the solution?

I’ve always been impressed by how deeply the national motorcycle awareness strategies have permeated into the mainstream. Working with industry associations and other stakeholders, motorcycle awareness is promoted on television, roadside billboards, bumper stickers and through organised rider events. Even so, while these national campaigns have lowered fatalities, statistics indicate that in Victoria 84 per cent of rider fatalities remain the fault of the car driver. So it’s obvious more needs to be done.

The challenge is to get the road safety message deep into drivers’ psyche so that it’s applied — without thinking — every single time we take to the road. 

It’s said that awareness has two crucial components: knowledge and self-awareness. So when we look to change the behaviour of drivers, it’s not going to be enough to simply keep telling them what they’re supposed to be doing. Drivers need to ‘own’ both the problem and the solution.

Regrettably, for some, ingrained safety awareness only comes after a near-miss or a road accident which grips their attention enough to really open their eyes behind the wheel — and actually see what’s going on around them. It’s a costly lesson indeed.

If we all committed to being fully focussed on our driving, every time we take to the road, we might really start making a difference out there.

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