How to manage risk while out on the open road towing a caravan

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taking the risk out of caravan towing
Seeing red ... it is important to stay focussed on driving even when striking scenery provides a distraction PIC: Ross Robinson

A leading expert in risk management, Robert Medbury, takes a careful look at the factors that play a part in all caravan accidents

Caravan accidents or incidents or ‘mishaps’ are no different to any other accident as they all have the same ingredients. These include people issues, mechanical/engineering issues, procedural issues (such as people deciding to drive in thongs), and environmental factors.

Humans are prone to distraction and pre-occupation and, due to imperfect training systems, are also prone to plain old mistakes and poor judgements. With caravans some mistakes could be; you leave the caravan/camper brake on or you forget to connect up the 12V feed; you leave one support strut down, an awning is not fully secured, or you back into a tree.

Alternatively, you may be travelling too fast for the conditions and your particular rig, or you may be distracted by a mobile phone or even a GPS. The bottom line is that humans have finite abilities when it comes to avoiding injury or death.

Most people forget stuff, (eg the many driving rules and regulations). If you got 100% in a driver training course today, it is very unlikely you will get 100% in six months’ time doing the same written assessment.

Also, humans cannot concentrate on complex tasks for extended periods. If you stay at the wheel for several hours, your overall driving ability will slowly decline and you will be more prone to errors. Also, humans have one channel brains when it comes to problem solving. That is to say, when committed to a ‘problem’ we can only concentrate on one problem at a time. Occasionally on the road we are confronted with more than one ‘problem’ ie it is raining (reduced visibility) and someone is coming towards us who decides to pull out and pass. This is a situation of increasing risk.

Simply attaching a rolling load (caravan) to the back of your vehicle is going to result in a substantial elevation of risk.

In terms of overall (driving) capacity we are all different and we don’t have the same capacity over time: noting that the person who is a top performer today, may not be so in a week’s time. With driving, where one looks (how far up the road) and related reaction times is a big issue.

Factors that may increase reaction time include age, health status (you have a cold), visual acuity, physical fitness and, of course, if you are under the influence of a chemical substance, (includes beer and prescription drugs). Many accidents involve several causation factors, some obvious and some not so obvious.

For example, someone is out on the road driving with their caravan and their dog of 15 years died a few hours ago. This person will have incrementally reduced overall capacity due to their emotional state and their level of preoccupation with what has just occurred.

There are, of course, many reasons why a person may be upset. Having a major argument with a partner while driving is a situation of elevated risk and has undoubtedly resulted in accidents and/ or death. Although it is fair to say that a large proportion of caravan accidents are caused by human error, dwelling on this fact doesn’t really help prevent these crashes.

In other words, it is not really an effective strategy to simply instruct people to not make errors. While driver training and education will obviously always be important, it has to be assumed that motorists will inevitably make errors at some stage.

And that means a greater emphasis has to be put on making people safer via engineering means eg. airbags and by improving the driving environment with things like better roads, better road markings, and better signage.

  • Robert Medbury is a retired Senior Risk Advisor with a decades-long career.
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