Driving on Australian Roads

Like any other country in the world some of the situations and hazards presented by Australian roads are unique to Australia.

Australia is a vast place and lightly populated compared with a continents like Europe or Northern America. In fact, based on United Nations data for 239 countries, Australia ranks number 233 for population density. This essentially means that there are stretches of road for hundreds of kilometres where nobody lives.

It also means that although all of the major highways and byways are good quality sealed bitumen roads, many of the back roads and connecting routes are unsealed gravel - maintained by local shire authorities.

In regions where cattle stations can easily exceed 1,000,000 acres, inhabited by perhaps only 1 – 2 tax or rate payers, the roads maintenance budget needs to stretched pretty tight to cover the huge distances. Many roads may see a grader only once a year.

The States

Crossing state borders is sometimes a humorous event; the difference in one states road budget over another can sometimes be plainly seen and often measured in potholes and gutted edges.

Regions with large scale mining activity may fair better in the road funding budgets while sections of highway with lots of roadtrain traffic may chop out quickly.

Speed limits vary from state to state, one of the most noticeable being the 130kph to 100kph shift across some Queensland/Northern Territory borders crossings. Over time things like speed limits and road rules are evolving to become more uniform across the states and common sense can generally be applied along with an understanding of fundamental driving principles.

The days of unlimited speeds in the Northern Territory (autobahn style) are over while Melbourne still holds onto some unique if not effective techniques for moving traffic.

Crossing state borders is usually a non-event that will not even require a change in speed. At some crossings you will be required to surrender any fruit to restrict the transfer of agricultural pests and diseases between states.

Conditions

Road conditions vary from place to place and season to season. In the northern parts of the country it is possible to have major highways become impassable due to rain and flooding rivers. Convoys of vehicles sometimes wait at swollen river crossings until the waters subside under bridges of not inconsiderable structure and size.

Australia is extremely dry in most of the non-tropical North but cyclones can quickly bring huge downfalls of rain. Rain falling several hundred kilometres away can flood a normally dry river closer to the coast.

This is worth remembering when travelling in heavy rain on remote dirt roads. A floodway can became impassable with a decent nights rain and a thoroughfare crossed one day can become a barricade the next.

Overall road communications are reasonably good and most places have adequate forward warning about hazards or changing conditions. Permanent signage is consistent and understandable while any new hazard is normally quickly temporarily signposted.

The people who know best about local conditions are not surprisingly - the locals. The tourist centre, council offices, police station, roadhouse, ranger station and the local pub will know exactly what is happening on the roads and highways leading in and out of their area. The roads are their lifeline and news spreads like wildfire on the ‘bush telegraph’.

Roadtrains and Trucks

Roadtrain is a term not widely used outside of Australia and describes a prime mover towing two, three or four trailers in varying configurations. Technically they are either ‘doubles’, ‘triples’ or ‘A-B Quads’ and can be up to 53.5 metres long (175 feet).

Road Train

53 metres is a long way if you are (a) towing a caravan (b) heavily loaded or (C) just plain slow. The roadtrain ahead of you, travelling at 100kph, can become a massively long obstacle as you pull out to overtake it.

Australian roads tend to have many long straight stretches where visibility is good for miles and there is no need to risk life and limb on short or blind corners.

Often truck drivers will acknowledge a ‘clear road ahead’ by a solitary flash of the right hand indicator. They are generally letting you know it is safe to pull out and go around them. As with any situation – assess it on its merits. He could also be turning right.

Roadtrains can weigh up to 200 tonnes with the majority coming in between 80 and 120 tonnes. It is a huge mass travelling at 100kph and it takes a lot of time and distance for them to stop.

Vehicles pulling out in front of roadtrains run the risk of being driven straight over. Likewise so do passenger vehicles that decide they are turning NOW and stand on the brakes in order to make a corner, regardless of what is coming behind them. Trucks and roadtrains are legally allowed to use two lanes to make a turn. Allow extra space at intersections and roundabouts and have some respect for their size and stopping abilities.

It is not uncommon to encounter “Oversize” loads on highways and roads. These are wider or longer than conventional roadtrains and require more of the road. They are often escorted by additional vehicles and sometimes the police.

Common Courtesies

When driving at night time be vigilant and avoid blinding oncoming traffic by dipping your high beam well in advance. Similarly when approaching another vehicle from behind. Be conscious about high beam reflections in the rear view mirrors of others.

If you are driving considerably slower than other vehicles consider pulling over and allowing the convoy developing behind you to go by.

The daytime flashing of headlights is used as a warning that you are going to encounter some type of hazard further along the road. It could be stock on the road, an oversize load, an accident or even a police speed trap.

Years ago in Australia people only waved at oncoming traffic in remote and isolated areas. The casual hand wave was reserved for back roads and tracks where the situation established a sense of camaraderie and helped reinforce an unspoken understanding that anyone in trouble would be aided by any passing traffic.

It is doubtful that the hand wave employed today carries the same sort of meaning. On most roads outside the metropolitan areas a raised hand is almost an obligatory salute and probably indicates the sharing of a common experience more than anything else. If you have ever spent 10 hours driving Highway 1 with its never ending stream of trucks, caravans, campers and cars and attempted to wave at every one - then you may wonder if this courtesy is not a little misplaced at times.

When travelling through any rural, farming, agricultural or station country you will encounter gates. The very simple rule is to leave it as you found it. If it is open then leave it that way, there is a reason. If it is closed then shut it after you have gone through.

Traditionally, (and for reasons of common sense), the front passenger operates the gates and the driver remains in the car. If you are travelling in an area where you anticipate having to open lots of gates then it’s often a prudent time to volunteer to drive.

The Animals
Camels on backroad

The major hazard on Australian roads apart from other drivers is without doubt the animals. The highways are littered with the constant annihilation that occurs between car and beast.

Australia’s largest bird of prey, the Wedge-Tail Eagle, has learned that the highways provide a constant supply of carrion and that living close to the road makes for an easy life. These magnificent birds are slow to lift off especially with a full belly and often need a little room to move away as a car approaches. With a wingspan that can reach over 2 metres these birds are not budgerigars and it is much better to watch them fly off than to plough into them.

Kangaroos and Emus are plentiful and move around constantly but especially at dawn and dusk.

Cattle are an ever present problem and horses, camels, donkeys and sheep are other likely encounters. Many larger stations are unfenced allowing cattle free roam across the roads. The nature of road building ensures that the bridges shade the waterholes and fresh grass grows where water runs along the verges. This makes the side of the road a reasonably attractive place to congregate. Animals move to water at dawn and dusk and cross roads to get to it.

The following excerpt is taken from the article How to Drive on Gravel and describes an approach to dealing with animals on the road.

“Constantly scan the edges of the road for animals, especially near water, and understand if you’ve passed a single kangaroo or cow that there is probably another one right up his backside. Don’t swerve to avoid animals. Swerving to avoid collision is a natural reaction and requires a conscious shift in attitude to overcome. Nobody wants to end up in hospital or worse saving the life of a rabbit or bird.

If you are going to collide with an animal apply braking force to slow the vehicle without losing control and keep travelling in a straight line. Be prepared to hit the animal.

Striking animals like kangaroos and emus while decelerating is messy, but not normally fatal. Swerving off the road and rolling over can be. Larger animals like cows, horses, donkeys and camels are a different proposition. Running into a heavy, long legged horse presents a whole different set of parameters than hitting a kangaroo. The suggestion here is to drive within controllable limits and treat every situation on its own merits. Again running into anything whilst braking is generally better than swerving at high speed.”

Locusts (grasshoppers) present another problem and can potentially ruin a holiday. Large swarms can be encountered, particularly at the beginning of the ‘wet season’ in the tropics. Almost the size of small birds, locusts can quickly build up a layer of mush across your radiator grill and block the airflow to the engine. Regular cleaning is necessary to prevent overheating.

Driving in Australia is a fairly straight forward activity and not unlike driving anywhere else in the world. Develop some respect for the road trains and trucks that ply the highways. Understand the unpredictable nature of the zoo that lives along the side of the road and then just enjoy the ride.

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