Small individual risk factors can all add up to create an ‘accident’

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Risk expert, Robert Medbury, takes a closer look at how the ‘process’ of a caravan accident can unfold over a period of time

It is best to think of an accident as a ‘process’ that unfolds, not an ‘event’. It may unfold over minutes and often over a few seconds.

The process may have several ‘ingredients’ and the way these ingredients interact (permutations) results in a range of outcomes that spans from a near-miss to death and everything in between. Human error certainly contributes to a lot of caravan accidents, but that is only a part of the overall story.

Other key elements to consider are:

Environmental factors: These include, road surface, camber, drainage, horizontal and vertical alignment, sunlight, rain, fog, willy willies, road-side furniture and vegetation, road markings etc to name a few. Some of these matters are critical for determining line of sight or sight distance. If you can’t see very far, then you’re going to have less time to react to problems. For instance, you come around a corner while driving in the country and there is a tree across the road. You will have much less time to react than if the fallen tree was on a straight section of road.

Mechanical (Engineering) issues: Anything that can malfunction is a potential contributing ingredient to an ‘accident’. This includes bearings, brakes, tyre pressures, unsuitable tyres, poor hitch/ coupling selections, unknown ball weights, unknown caravan/trailer weights and steering characteristics that are not fully understood by the driver. Less maintenance on mechanical bits translates into more risk. Well serviced wheel bearings almost never fail. A dirty windscreen and worn windscreen wiper blades would also fall into this category. Other key factors can be blind spots related to wing mirrors and pillars. It is easy to ‘lose a car’ and most certainly a motorbike, behind a pillar. Not being aware of your vehicle’s/rig’s blind spots means more risk.

Procedural issues: How we do things and whether things are done via a fixed set of steps (pre-planning) or whether we play things by ear, all have an impact on risk. As an example, it appears that many drivers drive in thongs. It is unlikely that this practice is risk neutral. How and when we decide to overtake is a major driving decision. Thousands of people have paid the ultimate sacrifice after getting this particular decision wrong. What is the right top cruising speed for your rig? We know we are supposed to match our speed with the driving conditions, though I have seen drivers on the Gibb River Road who have selected an optimistic speed. We know that speed makes us have to make faster decisions and even faster physical reactions. This total time, decision plus reaction, is often longer than the time required to fix the situation. As a result, elevated speed also elevates risk, which can translate into severe outcomes. Anything that you do to reduce risk is a good thing.

There is also a thing called ‘luck’ which can come into play to reduce the severity of an outcome. It is sometimes stated that good risk management increases your luck. You may think that some matters (risks) are too small for you to bother with eg checking all your tyres and wheel nuts every morning while on the road with the caravan/trailer. You may be right … it may be unnecessary. However, how minor individual risks combine to create an ‘accident’ on a particular day, at a particular time and on a particular road defies prediction.

In my experience, ignoring small things (sources of risk) that can readily be fixed, is often done so at one’s own peril.

  • Robert Medbury is a retired Senior Risk Adviser
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