Tarred and barred

Sydney Morning Herald - Saturday 18 December 1999


The equipment needed for serious off-road work can make 4WDs an urban traffic hazard. PETER McKAY looks at moves to rein in not only the vehicles but their city drivers.

A controversial call for tougher licence tests for owners of four-wheel-drives has received serious support in Victoria, and is now gathering momentum in NSW.

The move follows US insurance industry research showing that big 4WDs are three times more likely to kill or seriously injure road users than regular passenger cars.

The Pedestrian Council of Australia proposes a plan, which is not enjoying unanimous support among motoring experts, for a licence endorsement for any driver of a 4WD weighing more than two tonnes.

Prominent Sydney defensive-driving trainer Peter Finlay also supports the campaign to improve 4WD on-road driving standards.

"The 4WD is a compromise vehicle intended to operate in the bush and on the highway," said Finlay. "So around the suburbs or on the highway, its size, weight, high centre of gravity and body roll mean it is not as easy to control as a car. A 4WD is more prone to overturning, particularly when the driver gets a wheel on a gravel verge, even on a straight piece of road."

Finlay is also critical of 4WD tyres, which often are a compromise dirt/highway pattern and made from a harder compound. "They don't have the same grip on the bitumen, and this can affect braking distances. And the short wheelbase models tend to have a strong front-wheel brake bias with a tendency to lock the front wheels."

In Finlay's experience, a big 4WD braking to a halt from 70 km/h will take 10 metres longer than an average family sedan to stop. "There's nothing wrong with the brakes on a 4WD, but the extra weight, the harder tyres and the front braking bias combine to hurt its stopping distances."

The Pedestrian Council of Australia is proposing that drivers of such vehicles be required to pass an advanced driving course proving they can control the heavy and bulky 4WD.

"Their sheer weight, stiff front-end and reinforced chassis make them a deadly combination in the wrong hands," said the council's Harold Scruby. "There are a lot of Australians who don't really know how to drive them safely."

Scruby is surprised that more Aust-ralians - particularly the majority who drive less-aggressive small and medium sized passenger cars - are not protesting to politicians that these vehicles are endangering their lives. He also believes insurance companies should be charging much higher premiums for them.

Some modern 4WDs are designed with crumple zones that are a little "friendlier" to other vehicles in a collision - but the majority of 4WDs, with truck-like chassis, still transfer energy in a heavy impact. And those travelling in a 4WD must absorb the impact energy if it hits something as substantial as a big tree or another truck-like vehicle.

The campaign for special licences comes at a time when 4WDs are already under fire on several fronts.

Off-roaders attract 5 per cent import tariff, compared with 17.5 per cent (15 per cent after January 1) for passenger cars. Under a GST, the 4WDs will be, relatively, even cheaper.

Exhaust emission standards are lower for 4WDs than for passenger cars. The big and heavy off-roaders also use more fuel and contribute disproportionately to greenhouse emissions.

Because many 4WDs are used as passenger vehicles, the NRMA and others believe they should meet the same environmental and safety standards as regular sedans and wagons.

The NRMA is also targeting bullbars, asserting these staple 4WD fittings increase the risk of injury to pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. It believes full-sized bullbars should be fitted only to vehicles outside the metropolitan areas, where the risk of colliding with animals is greater.

Crash investigations show bullbars tend to penetrate further into other vehicles in side-on collisions.

Detachable fibreglass protectors are available for 4WD owners who drive to city areas frequently. Fishing rod holders and winches, often mounted at the front of off-roaders, have been attacked for their potential to kill and maim pedestrians and cyclists.

Safety experts are concerned, too, that non-factory bullbars can cause malfunctions of airbags or seat belt pre-tensioners.

Now car owners are bolting on their own protection, another move which alarms the Pedestrian Council.