4X4

Morons

Another month and another accident at Fraser Island, again involving a rented 4WD, although one driven by Aussies. Still, doesn’t matter, they’re idiots wherever they come from. Probably loaded the vehicle wrongly, tyre pressures too high and any fool can see those Troopies handle like jellies at the best of times, let alone on a beach. People today eh, no common sense. Thousands of others go fine, just those few morons that crash. Heard about some nong that hadn’t even aired down properly, 40psi!!! What a pity we can’t legislate against stupidity.

That view is held by a significant minority of offroaders, and while there are often shades of grey in these situations I’m not seeing one here – that view is just plain wrong. While everyone does something stupid from time to time that doesn’t mean to say they’re someone of retarded intelligence, but this isn’t an argument about linguistic semantics. And it may even be the case that the people concerned were not even doing something stupid when the accident occurred.

How could that be? If a vehicle rolled, surely there was a moron at the wheel? Maybe the accident was indeed a result of a stupid act, but given the regularity which with these problems occur not all can be ascribed to recklessness. Let’s say the cause was driving at 30kmph on the beach, and swerving gently away up-beach from perhaps a wave that unexpectedly washed further up than usual. That could easily roll a heavily-loaded Troopie, as experienced offroaders know.

But it’s not an offroad ace behind the wheel, it’s a tourist and perhaps this is the first 4WD they’ve driven and first time in sand. That’s a problem because drivers inexperienced in sand and with 4WDs cannot judge what is safe and what is not safe because they lack the knowledge and skills, not because of a fundamental lack of intelligence. In fact, their existing motoring skills and knowledge are not appropriate for the situation, yet the drivers will naturally make conscious or unconscious decisions based on that experience. And this is the point; driving a 4WD in sand is not, absolutely not, purely a matter of common sense and logic that any reasonable person could work out by themselves, or from a quick briefing. I have been teaching offroad driving for many years, and not one student has ever demonstrated they could figure it all out without instruction, so either they’re all stupid, or this is actually a subject which isn’t obvious to the average person – which means they need some training.

So imagine you’re driver of the Troopie on the beach at a mere 25kmph, needing to gently swerve around some sandbar, never having driven a 4WD or on sand before. You rely on your existing experience, that of a roadcar on road, where that manoeuvre would be quite safe. Maybe you knock a bit of speed off as you were told in the briefing, down to second gear but do you slow down enough ? You have no way to know, no yardstick, but it seems so slow now, surely it must be ok. Perhaps you see other 4WDs going faster and that gives you confidence, but you’re unable to differentiate between your own vehicle and the well-setup cars driven by skilled drivers who, unknown to you, are picking their lines.

So you turn the wheel. You don’t have any real understanding of the implications of a centre of gravity of a 4WD with a laden roofrack, don’t understand that reduced tyre pressures mean more body roll, that you are on a slight angle already on a beach and turning uphill, that the 4WD has slow steering, especially in sand, that you need to wait for a reaction rather than continue to turn the wheel, that as you turn a vehicle weight shifts to the outside which means the outer wheels have more effective weight on them and in sand the wheels more sink than skid which exacerbates the centre-of-gravity problems you already have, or that the sand was indeed hard ten metres back but now it’s suddenly softer, that you’re just now in a slight scallop so your sideangle has increased by a few degrees.

All you know is that you’ve turned the wheel what you think is a little amount, at what you think is a slow speed, the car does not react, so you turn more and the next thing you remember is the ambulance.

This is not stupidity, it is ignorance. The two should not be confused. But at the same time, those who are wilfully reckless be allowed to escape censure by hiding behind the protection of ignorance, because at some point behaviour crosses a line and becomes unreasonable. The argument here is not that the line exists, but where it exists.

It is hard to understand the perspective of some who is new to a skill when you already have that skill.  Novice driving instructors often worry about whether they have the necessary experience to teach novice offroaders. The answer is that anyone that has completed the course will look like a driving god to the following day’s students. And if you’ve been offroading for many years it is very difficult to put yourself in the place of a student who knows nothing. The only way to do it is for you to learn something new yourself, and see how long it is before you do something “stupid” out of ignorance. My experience as an instructor suggests it wouldn’t be long.

Now there needs to be a solution, because we can’t be having bodies strewn across beaches, regardless of whether the cause was stupidity or ignorance. As with most road safety problems the solution is driver training, even if it takes half a day, and combine it with greater limitations on vehicle load. Yes, far fewer people will self-drive, but if fewer die or are injured, isn’t that worth it, and in turn the hired-drive or tour guide business would boom.

Unfortunately, training drivers isn’t usually the way governments solve things; they prefer to make redesign everything so it is possible to operate in complete ignorance. Now that’s stupidity.

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Robert Pepper

Automotive journalist, 4WD owner, driver trainer, author and photographer.