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Saturday, January 04, 2003
On your toes

There are several things done in Victoria and New South Wales to keep the motorist on his toes. Firstly, there is the breathalyser that I have already encountered. Secondly, there is the speed trap; in Victoria it is particularly insidious because the police hide, off road, invisible to potential speedsters. There is no advanced warning, save for the flashing of headlights from approaching motorists, if they happen to have noticed.

The use of radar is, I would suggest, rather arbitrary: I was 'yellow-carded' in New South Wales by a lone policeman, driving towards me. This would seem to be a practice so open to error and or abuse that it would not be tolerated elsewhere. However, that is the way it is and I must learn to live with it. Perhaps I should consider bringing a chauffeur next time...

One of the trickiest things to encounter is roadwork. Firstly, the speed limits through road works are mandatory. They are rigorously enforced in Victoria although they are often absurdly slow. I have seen drivers stopped (presumably) for exceeding a 60 kph speed limit on the open road.

Metalled roads will often peter out when the surface is under repair. Sometimes, for long stretches, one has to drive over very rough terrain - the sort thing for which off-road vehicles are designed. Then one gets back on the hard stuff again. Interestingly, the hire car small print limits use to metalled roads only. I wonder what would happen if one were to have an accident on a piece of road under repair. Would that be counted as 'off-roading'?

In remoter areas, metalled roads sometimes narrow down so that it is impossible for two vehicles to pass without one or both moving onto the loose surface beside the central strip. Worst of all, though, is the metalled road that suddenly becomes an off-road track. Should one continue, aware that one’s insurance may well be invalidated or should one turn back? It is often not clear from maps which roads have decent surfaces and which do not. Avoiding these ‘surprise’ un-metalled stretches often involves detours of hundreds of kilometres.

One becomes blase about the half-hearted marking of lane closures. Last week, I was driving along a stretch of dual carriageway when I came across a sign indicating that the left hand lane was closed. As it happened, I found myself in a bunch of traffic, so I had no view of the closure until I was right upon it. 'Hello,' I thought, 'this traffic is behaving strangely.' Indeed it was - the right hand lane was closed. I was so surprised that I went back to check: Yes, the closure was wrongly marked.

All sorts of statistic about accidents are put up on hoardings beside the roads. They still seem to make little difference to Australia's road death toll. Per head of population, by distance driven, by any criterion, it is pretty terrible. Some of the signs make good sense. For example, 'If you drink and drive, you're a bloody idiot. But another almost seems to celebrate the frequency of accidents: if my memory serves me correctly, it says 'Eighty percent of accidents happen on bends'. Well, there is an explanation…

In New South Wales, I frequently came across warning signs about a bend, or bends, ahead. You know the sort of thing: signs carry an advisory speed limit for the forthcoming curve(s). My previous experience has been that such warning signs are incredibly conservative but this is not the case in New South Wales. Some are conservative, some are reasonable and a few, perhaps one in five or ten, are set much too high. I have several times found myself scrambling round bends, close to the limits of adhesion, at the recommended speed; less experienced motorists would almost certainly lose control of their vehicles. It would be even worse in the wet.

Is it surprising, then, that '80% of accidents happen on bends? Not in New South Wales, it isn't.

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