Truck driver Marty Baldwin with the road safety brochures targeting grey nomads. (ABC Kimberley: Erin Parke)
There are tensions on Australia’s northern highways as a growing number of sun-chasing grey nomads compete for road space with truck drivers who are working to meet deadlines.
It is a growing issue on highways across the country, as baby boomers hit the roads in increasing numbers in caravans and campers, also known as recreational vehicles, or RVs.
Richard Barwick, who heads the Campervan and Motorhome Club of Australia, said there had been reports of road rage incidents as truckers and retirees jostle for space.
Richard Barwick says truckers and retirees can be a dangerous mix on the roads. (ABC News: Anthony Scully)
“The shared use between trucks and RVs is always a controversial point, because trucks are under a limited timeframe to get from point A to point B, while RVs are traditionally slower travellers,” he said.
“It makes for a very, very dangerous situation when these trucks are travelling at the speed limit, and suddenly they get caught up between a number of RVs travelling at a slower speed.
“There are some horrific stories that have come across our desk.
“Members have been caught up with a truck right behind them, very, very close, then feels anxious and when trying to get off the road quickly, goes too far and has driven himself into a culvert or a ditch, causing a major accident.”
Grey nomad scene booming
The recreational vehicle market is the fastest growing sector in Australian tourism, with 650,000 caravans and campers now registered.
Mr Barwick said the trend reflects Australia’s ageing demographic, as well as a renewed desire by holidaymakers to travel domestically, rather than fly to Bali.
He said the sector is in talks with the trucking industry to try to ease pressure on the road network by developing a driver education campaign, and a wish list for government investment.
“We are engaging with the major trucking organisations to discuss how can we have safer travel patterns and ensure we’re talking about the issues that are arising,” he said.
“It could be talking about black spots, it could be the need for more overtaking lanes or roadside signage, but it’s important that we go as a collective to the government saying this is what we’ve identified.”
Grey nomads Peter and Barbara Alcock said wider roads and more rest stops would help.
The Perth couple are spending three months touring the Kimberley in their caravan.
Grey nomads Peter and Barbara Alcock say they try to be respectful of truck drivers. (ABC Kimberley: Erin Parke)
“It’s our home away from home. We’re just toddling along; we’re not in any hurry,” Mr Alcock said.
“We are conscious of the truckies trying to get their job done, and we try to be respectful, because they’re at work and we’re not.
“Often you can’t pull over because of the road, so you can feel them wanting to push along a bit, and maintain their 100 kilometres per hour.
“It can be tricky.”
Trust the truckies
Marty Baldwin has been driving trucks up and down Western Australia’s highways for 30 years.
He said he loved seeing travellers of all ages exploring Australia, but cited a couple of pet hates.
“There are definitely more grey nomads heading further north than they used to, and in better vehicles,” he said.
“While some of the driving has got better, inconsistent speeds is a big thing.
“They’ll be travelling along, plodding along at a consistent 80kph, and they’ll see us coming up behind them and they’ll all of a sudden slow down or they’ll panic and take off.
“It does make it hard to do an overtaking manoeuvre.”
Mr Baldwin said a UHCF radio and extension mirrors were crucial for safe overtaking and pulling over.
“The biggest message is don’t panic,” he said.
“We are professional operators, and we are not going to put you in a situation that’s going to intimidate you, or anything like that, so just don’t panic.
“Maintain your position and speed on the road, and we’ll sit back and make a judgement about when it is safe to make a manoeuvre.”
A lesson in highway etiquette
Transport company Centurion’s safety manager, Luke Beeston, said a recent survey of its drivers showed more than 80 per cent had witnessed or experienced a close call with a caravan in the past two years.
“I think there has been an increase in risk, where there are more people interacting with heavy vehicles on a daily basis, and also an increased risk from those who are slightly more inexperienced taking caravans or touring around Australia,” he said.
Mr Beeston said the main issues were unsafe overtaking, overcrowded rest stops, and the need for communication via indicator lights and UHF radios.
The company has distributed 200,000 flyers on driving safely to roadhouses and caravan parks. The brochures outline safe driving habits and highway etiquette.
Can’t we all get along?
Ben Maguire, who heads the Australian Trucking Association, said it should not be an “us versus them” debate when it comes to sharing the roads.
“Tourism is vital to outback regions, to the economy and to the vibrancy of these regions — we get that,” he said.
“Tourists need to feel welcome and at home, and have great facilities.
“But the point is there would be nothing on the shelves and no fuel in the bowsers if trucks didn’t also have the same facilities.
“Whether it’s a 55-year-old truck driver or a retired couple, they both deserve the same amount of respect and care so they are fit to drive the next day.”