The G Wagon is a very heavy 4x4 with heaps of power and drives quietly and smoothly compared to a LR110. All these factors work against the driver leading up to an accident. The core issue is speed on 2nd class roads. Drivers need to adjust their speed to the road conditions (slow down). This will require a culture shift across all drivers within Army. In our favour, the G Wagon has high strength A pillars (part of the SEK kit). The vehicle holds up well in a roll over incident. To date relatively minor injuries [however] a side impact into a solid object will most likely tip the balance.
– Lieutenant Colonel Warren Whibley, MSc, BEng(Elec), FIEAust, CPEng Chief Engineer, Commercial & General Service Vehicles
As we roll into the latest iteration of the Joint Warfare Series, the interest in vehicle safety predictably peaks. Why? Well, we can guarantee that with several thousand personnel operating their vehicles and equipment in Shoal Water Bay Training Area (The Bay) there will be a number of vehicle accidents ranging from minor to serious, and maybe worse. The statistics prove it: but this article is not about the stats, it’s about how we can change driver behaviour to improve safety and hopefully reduce the avoidable harm to personnel and damage to equipment.
As Forces Command’s Incident Manager, my role is to report and monitor trends in incident reporting. There are 14 categories of incidents that can be reported in Army’s Incident Management System including substance abuse, unacceptable behaviour, sexual misconduct, mental health, explosive ordnance, range and vehicle incidents. Of interest to this article are vehicle accidents. Many of these categories equate to either the Chief of Army’s or Commander Forces Command’s Critical Information Requirements. Since January 2017, there have been 22 G Wagon accidents reported in AIMS and there could well be more that went unreported, have been reported elsewhere or miscategorised.
Image 1: G Wagon Rollover – A G Wagon rollover that occurred during a recent exercise in Shoal Water Bay Training Area. Both occupants escaped injury although the damage to the vehicle is extensive. The accident occurred at a bend on an unsealed road. The likely cause was that the driver was not driving to the road conditions.
My analysis of these 22 accidents, and the associated AC 626 Vehicle Accident Reports, show that more than half of these accidents occurred on exercise. Significantly, almost as many accidents were assessed to be terrain-related (32%) as speed-related[i] (41%). To date, Army has been lucky and despite these 22 accidents none have resulted in serious injuries. On some level, we can thank the quality of Mercedes’ design and manufacture of the 2,146 six-cylinder, 3.0L turbo diesel G Wagons Defence acquired through Land 121 Phase 3A for preventing more serious outcomes. Indeed, one professional car reviewer describes the civilian version as suited to ‘idiot proof 4WD adventuring’. Yet, we still have instances of avoidable accidents. The same review also highlights the speed and power of the G Wagon. As numerous people have said to me, and as performance trials have shown, the G Wagon massively outperforms the old Land Rover 110, just as the Land Rover 110 did to the Series 3 Land Rovers in the 1990s. As we are now seeing with the G Wagon, the changeover from the Land Rover Series 3 to the 110 saw numerous rollovers, some fatalities and many serious injuries. One response in the 1990s was to install rollover protection bars to the 110 fleet probably saving many lives.
The new G Wagons are a very safe vehicle[ii], much safer than the Land Rover 110. Yet they are vastly more powerful and capable than the 110. From an engineering perspective, little else can or should be done to improve safety. The changes that are necessary to improve safety are behavioural and the statistics above prove this. So what can we do to improve driver behaviour?
At the outset, driver training is a critical factor in producing safe drivers. Army’s School of Transport (AST) are responsible to train the vast majority of Defence’s G Wagon drivers and it has an enviable record in doing this [correction]. AST offers a world-class combination of theory, practical and simulated driver training delivered by a professional cadre of military and contracted driving instructors. Yet good training only goes so far, as shown by studies conducted in the aviation industry.
In 1956, following several high-profile aviation disasters, Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO now DST Group) researcher, Mr David Warren, developed a prototype ‘flight memory unit’. As Chris Sheedy observed
'David Warren’s flight recorder was originally rejected by airlines. Some in Australia even said it was an invasion of pilots’ privacy. But in 1960, after TAA Flight 538 from Brisbane to Mackay crashed into the ocean on approach to Mackay Airport, killing all 29 passengers and crew on board the Fokker Friendship, the government changed its tune.'[iii]
No one travelling by air now would imagine flying in an aircraft without a ‘black box’ recorder and after that accident, Australia became the first to mandate the use of black box recorders in all commercial aircraft. Other data initiatives such as the analysis of flight simulation records are now widely used in the aviation industry. Indeed, both Qantas and Virgin Australia centrally manage and analyse aircraft fleet data to improve pilot and aircraft performance. Australia’s Army Aviation program have just started to do this for the fleet of Blackhawks and Tiger ARHs to obtain 'predictive analytics…required to change behaviours and avoid accidents'.[iv] As Colonel David Lynch observed
'These are data driven pre-incident indicators that can enhance safety through proactive re-training or other preventative actions. Also, once you have this sort of program in play, and people know they are being watched, behaviours change.'[v]
We should consider this predictive approach for our new fleet of Land 121 vehicles (and maybe Land 400 vehicles if equipped) as all now come fitted with data management systems. Such systems aid Defence vehicle fleet managers to keep track of usage and sustainment costs. Yet they can equally be used to predict outcomes based on the recorded metrics of speed, GPS location, and vehicle dynamics, such as gear selection, steering use, body roll angle and traction control/ABS activation. We already use this data to conduct post-incident analysis of an accident when the stated cause recorded by a driver in an AC626 seems to contradict reality.
Image 2: VDMS Data Chart – CASG analysis of the vehicle data management system from a recent G Wagon rollover. Speed 107km/h (likely on an 80km/h road) leading up to the bend. Simply travelling way too fast. Loss of control was about 35311:47. Vehicle rolled completely back onto its wheels. Vehicle beyond economical repair. Copyright Department of Defence.
As useful as this is for disciplinary purposes, in reality it comes too late and will be for the family of the next soldier that is injured or worse in a G Wagon vehicle accident.
In the next few weeks, the number of personnel driving service vehicles in or near The Bay during the Joint Warfare Series will rise sharply and, from my perspective, it is hard to see how we will not have a vehicle accident involving speed. Command supervision and preventative measures will of course be in place and will include greater signage of speed limits, increased Military Police checks, greater physical driver supervision, pre-departure checks and the usual mandatory convoy orders. But this won’t work if someone intends to drive too fast for the conditions on the unsealed, all weather dirt roads throughout The Bay. What might work is if that if drivers know that their driving is being monitored: this knowledge may change their behaviour.
The good news is that Defence, through the Directorate of Logistics – Army, is already making progress in this area. A trial of telematics reporting[vi] is underway on Defence’s heavy vehicle fleet[vii] to improve compliance with the National Heavy Vehicle Law[viii] and, ultimately, safety. The value of post-incident data is also acknowledged within Defence’s Capability and Acquisition Group[ix] and within the latest version of Defence Road Transport Manual (DRTM).[x] A solution is nearly at hand – the next steps would be to exploit the work and contracts Army Aviation already have in place to collect and analyse pre-incident G Wagon data and to tweak our policy to ensure that pre-incident data is considered as useful as post incident data.
Irrespective of this: stay safe, slow down and always drive to the conditions. Your family, friends and the Army want you back home in one piece.
Correction: The author acknowledges feedback that whilst AST owns and exports the training management package for G Wagon driving instruction, AST actually trains less than 1500 G Wagon drivers annually. The vast majority of ADF G Wagon drivers are trained in Australian Army line units using the AST exported training management package. This does not change the premise of this article that G Wagon drivers need to slow down on dirt roads.