4WD training: Learn from the experts
Scott Heiman puts forward the case for driver training.
"Driving’s a skill – not a right".
Your parents may have said something like this to you when you were learning to drive. Indeed, you might have said something like this to your own kids more recently. It’s the same sentiment that might come to mind when you see inexperienced drivers taking to the roads and driving recklessly. But have you reflected on those words and what they may imply for your own driving today?
Did you know that to be granted a military driver’s licence to drive a 4WD or tow a trailer in offroad conditions you have to complete a ‘simple’ 16-day course in a military Land Rover 110 Perentie? During this time, students not only have to negotiate a range of terrains in different conditions, they also have to re-take the basic Learner’s and P-plate tests. This requirement shouldn’t leave you thinking that our military drivers need more instruction than the rest of society. It simply reinforces the message that skills don’t just ‘happen’ and none of us should take our driver proficiency for granted – regardless of how many years we’ve been on the road.
Ask yourself this – would you pass an L- or P-plate test today? Before you answer this question, consider looking at some of the ‘theory test sample’ quizzes that are available online. You may be surprised at how much you’ve forgotten.
It’s not just the military that takes driver training really seriously. The mining industry supplies its workers with training – as do many other government agencies and workplaces. It’s required of workers because their employing agencies understand that driving is a significant work, health and safety risk and that regular driver training builds awareness of safe driving techniques and reduces the risks on the road.
So what do you really know about driving 4WDs in offroad conditions, and how well do you think you’d go if your driving was closely scrutinised by someone whose skills are nationally accredited? And what about your towing skills?
With increasing numbers of RVs being sold in this country, more and more people are hitching up a caravan or camper trailer and heading off for some adventure. Some are even taking their brand new ‘home-away-from-home’ from the dealers’ yard straight out on to our nation’s highways and byways – with little real understanding of how easily it could all go wrong.
Formal driver training isn’t just suitable for people who drive for a living. While towing can be terrific fun, doing it safely and with confidence involves learning a few basic skills and then practising them. So whether you’ve learnt what you know through the ‘school of hard knocks’ – or you’re new to an offroad camper trailer lifestyle – remember that everybody needs a little revision at times.
The internet is full of accredited driver training companies who can help. You might like to look for short courses that cover topics like: road rules and towing regulations; issues around compatibility of van and vehicle; parking and reversing; emergency drills; loading your camper; and advice on some of the endless number of accessories you might find useful in your travels. While some of these topics may seem straightforward, even simple things such as learning a hitch-up routine or developing a pre-trip checklist will help make sure everything is safe and working before you move off. And this can save time, money and anxiety.
If you’ve got more time and can invest a little more, you’ll find plenty of comprehensive driver training packages for introductory, intermediate and advanced levels. Courses that get into the nitty-gritty of driving skills like reversing (including hand-signalling) and manoeuvring your rig into tight spaces – and out again – can be invaluable. While no course will teach you everything you need to know, it can certainly provide you with a range of new skills and can highlight those areas where you might not be as proficient as you’d originally thought.
We spoke with Vic Widman from Great Divide Tours who’s trained more than 26,000 people in the art of 4WDriving and towing. From first-timers through to corporate clients including the Australian Federal Police, NSW Police, Defence Force personnel, State Emergency Service personnel, National Parks and Wildlife Service – Widman’s seen a lot of drivers in his time.
He provided a few pointers on driver training and shared some of his thoughts on preparing yourself for a long-term tour.
"I prefer to train two people per vehicle booked on to one of my courses," Widman told us. "This means that a husband and wife team, couple or a pair of mates travelling together have the right skills to share the driving and reduce fatigue. Besides, what would happen if only one person knew how to drive or tow the vehicle and they were injured? The other would be forced to drive!
"With our busy schedules, some of us can change between two or three cars in a week. Think about your work vehicle, family run-about and the weekend tourer. All these vehicles have different specs and abilities – and this all changes again when we hitch up a caravan or camper trailer or engage 4WD. Braking distances, turning circles and on road performances are all changed," Widman said.
"Some of the more common mistakes we see when people attend our training are gear selection and overloading the trailer. This places too much strain on the transmission and can over-work the engine. In these scenarios, poor fuel economy, over heating or even vehicle breakdown can be common."
We think Widman’s on the money here.
Driver training really shouldn’t be overlooked. None of us expect to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. Similarly, we shouldn’t expect driver proficiency to just happen simply because we want it to. Sure, you could practise reversing in an empty carpark, and try to take things easy for the first few days of the big trip while you learn the ropes. But ask yourself: how much are you prepared to compromise your rig and the safety of your travel party? Ultimately, a few hundred dollars spent with a qualified instructor could save you immeasurable harm and heartache.
Check out the full feature in issue #101 June 2016 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.