Bull bars

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Bull bars loaded up with everything from fishing rod holders and winches to driving lights and UHF radio antennae have long been an integral part of the on-the-road lifestyle for many grey nomads, truckies and other travellers.

From humble, rather basic beginnings the modern bull bar has now evolved and, as well as possibly being made from a lightweight material, may now also incorporate a sleek, rounded design intended to throw animals and other obstacles over the roof of a moving vehicle, rather than just smashing into them.

Although you only have to see the number of large dead creatures lying by the side of any remote road to know the dangers that rural drivers face, there has still been considerable discussion in recent times about whether bull bars should be banned – or at least restricted in some way.

At the centre of the debate, of course, has been the issue of safety. On the one hand, there are those who argue that a bull bar mounted on the ‘status symbol 4WD’ of suburban parents poses a risk to pedestrians as it cruises urban areas on school runs and shopping trips. On the other, are those who say bull bars are a vital piece of equipment that protect country drivers against the possibly devastating consequences of colliding with wandering cattle, kangaroos or, heaven forbid, camels. In a collision, the bar is designed to protect the front of the vehicle (especially the cooling system), and reduces the chances of the driver being injured or left stranded with a damaged vehicle in a remote location.

For that reason, Outback-bound grey nomads – even those who have no intention of ever driving at night or even at dusk or dawn – feel more comfortable with a bull bar on the front of their 4WD vehicle … and who can blame them?

Indeed, the outcry surrounding the Federal Government’s draft Regulation Impact Statement (RIS) earlier this year, which proposed the adoption of an internationally agreed standard to improve pedestrian safety by making the front of vehicles more energy absorbing, created such a storm that it was quickly withdrawn with politicians acknowledging the plan wasn’t suitable for Australian conditions.

“While the Government is committed to improving the safety of pedestrians, we also recognise that bull bars play a positive role in the safety of vehicle occupants,” said the Parliamentary Secretary for Infrastructure and Transport, Catherine King in February. “In no circumstances will the Government consider banning bull bars or contemplate any lessening of the protection they provide. We are committed to ensuring that people remain fully protected in animal strikes and other hazardous situations where bull bars play a key role.”

According to the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia (RAA), the current Bull Bar standard (Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 4876) describes a range of requirements for bull bar design, installation and performance.  It says:

  • The bull bar shape should be similar to the frontal shape and slope of the vehicle to which it is fitted. Sloping backwards from the bumper to the top is most desirable.
  • The bull bar must be no wider than the vehicle body.
  • Attachment to the vehicle must be secure enough to achieve the purpose of protecting the vehicle. All supports should be free of hazardous sharp edges or exposed projections.
  • Other than the main replacement bumper, entirely tubular construction is preferred. Tube should be at least 40mm outside diameter and 50mm or larger is preferred. All exposed sections of the bull bar and fittings must be made from large diameter tubing, be deburred and should be designed to reduce the risk of injury to any person who may come into contact with the bull bar. All edges must be generously rounded, with no radius less than five mm. All tube ends are to be sealed.
  • All brackets for lights, antennae, fishing rod holders and so on must be behind the bull bar. They must not protrude beyond the front face or above the bull bar. Items, such as winches, must be mounted behind the bar and covered to protect pedestrians from sharp edges or projections.

Bull bars can now be made from a variety of materials including steel, plastic, and aluminum and the decision on which is right to help protect you on your Big Lap around the country depends largely on what sort of trip you have planned.

Obviously, steel is stronger and is a more solid anchor to mount accessories such as winches, for the serious 4WDer, but it brings with it extra weight and the possible effect on handling and suspension. There is also the chance of rusting, and corrosion will obviously weaken the bull bar over time.

For all but the most heavy duty of 4WDers an alloy or aluminum bar should suffice in terms of  handling winches and the like, and they also have a better strength to weight ratio.

Plastic is obviously lighter still, and is considered by many to be preferable because it is perceived to be less dangerous to pedestrians in the event of a collision.

A wild card factor in the great bull bar decision is the effect fitting one could have on the performance of your airbag, if applicable. The RAA says that while many people believe that bull bars provide protection to occupants in the event of a crash, they can actually risk injury if fitted to vehicles with airbags. It says fitting a bull bar changes the front stiffness of the vehicle which may cause a different signal to go to the airbag control computer and make the airbag deploy later than when needed. This is obviously not a good thing! It is an area that anyone fitting a bulbar to a vehicle that has airbags needs to discuss thoroughly with both the makers of the bull bar under consideration and the manufacturers of the vehicle involved.  Bull bar manufacturers are in the main claiming to have adapted their designs to address this potential problem but it pays to be absolutely sure.   When adding safety is the intention of a purchase, then the last thing you want to be doing is compromising it in another way.

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