Aussies are renowned for their love of the beach, the BBQ and the bush. Nothing reflects this fact more than the lists of best-selling cars that are published periodically by various motor magazines. In the top 10 there are typically four or five 4WD utes, at least two 4WD wagons and a smattering of SUV AWDs. Even in top 20 roll calls, there will commonly be around 10-12 dedicated 4WD vehicles, as well as a number of urban SUVs. This reality is reflected every day in our local carparks and driveways. Just look around the barracks if you want further evidence.
There’s a reason for our fixation on rugged motor vehicles. Our bush is tough – and tough terrain is tough on vehicles. While this fact may be made better in the military by the existence of recovery vehicles and a long logistics chain, we can’t afford to become complacent. That’s why ‘Difficult Terrain’ is one of the conditional codes that you’ll find on the back of every ADF driver’s license – but not every one has it on the front!
The reality is that, at any given time, Defence members are driving on rough terrain, whether that’s on the range, on the backroads, or in developing countries where driving conditions are frequently dodgy. But not all members of Defence have an ADF driver’s license. Indeed, there’s no guarantee that any ‘white fleet’ driver – whether military or civilian – has any form of training in 4WDriving. Consider, for example, range control staff, EXCON, safety, umpires, environmental officers and contractors. On operations, the situation is similar. Consider, for example, peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations when Defence commonly deploys a diverse range of civilian, contracted and service personnel in support of Australia’s efforts.
4WDriving skills aren’t just for off-road adventures and rock climbing. They’re equally relevant on minor roads and in adverse weather conditions, and, as an organisation that values the health and well-being of its members whether at home or at work, these skills are among the things that help ensure our people (including their families) come home safely. Indeed, if we plan to spend any serious time driving, we should all know, for example, how to control a slide, what to do in icy conditions, and how to drive on corrugations or on bull dust (including the importance of adjusting tyre pressures). It’s all about traction.
Just because we own a 4WD at home, doesn’t mean we know how to use it competently. When we acquired our civilian driver’s license, no-one tested our ability to traverse dirt roads, travel in convoy, drive in mud, tow or safely drive on sand. And we won’t fill our knowledge gap by simply watching a bunch of television shows or YouTube videos on 4WDriving. Indeed, many practices we see in the media are simply plain wrong, illegal or dangerous. Regardless of whether we have an ADF license coded for Difficult Terrain or not, 4WDriving skills are perishable. If neglected, any one of us can develop bad driving habits, complacency, or over-confidence. And these deficiencies can lead us to have a really bad day behind the wheel … or worse.
Study of reputable magazines or books may improve our theoretical knowledge of 4WDriving, and there are plenty of publications available, including by accredited trainers. A good example is ‘A Manual for On- and Off-Road Travel – 4WD Driving Skills’ written by Vic Widman who has been delivering driver training since 1990, including to the AFP, SES, RFS and Army units. Ultimately; however, watching and reading about 4WDriving are poor substitutes for hands-on training under the watchful eye of a professional.
That’s why it’s a great idea to send our people on accredited 4WDriving courses conducted by civilian accredited agencies – regardless of whether they hold an ADF driver’s license or not. 4WDriving skills are, after all, the ultimate form of defensive driving. Professional 4WD courses range from two-day introductory offerings to specialist programs in remote area driving, advanced 4WDriving, advanced recovery and even towing courses. And because the training is accredited, it can be uploaded onto PMKeyS.
Developing good habits
When it comes down to it, safe 4WDriving demands that a driver has well-honed situational awareness – and self-awareness – supported by professional driving skills. A skilled driver will continually assess the road conditions and their own capacity to respond. To develop habits of professional 4WDriving, the issues we need to routinely consider include:
- What am I dealing with?
- What are the road conditions ahead?
- What is the weather forecast?
- How deep is the river crossing?
- How deep is the bog hole?
- Is my vehicle up for the task:
- What is the difference between the prepared fording depth and an unprepared fording depth of my vehicle?
- Do I need to deflate tyres beforehand and can I re-inflate them?
- Do I engage high range or low range?
- Do I engage diff lock?
- What gear should I use or prepare?
- Should I be here?
- Do I have to do this?
- Is there an alternate route?
- Am I about to create unnecessary damage to the environment?
- Am I simply going to make things harder for the next vehicle that comes along?
- What if?
- Do I really have the skills for this?
- Do I have recovery gear?
- Am I in comms range if the ‘fit hits the shan?’
Case study confirmation
Over the years, I’ve dealt with incidents requiring the recovery of Land Rovers, G-Wagons, Unimogs, ASLAVs, 40Ms, Land Cruisers, APCs, HMMWVs and Hiluxes. Reflecting back on these episodes, they occurred for one or more of just a handful of reasons: because the driver didn’t read the terrain correctly, didn’t engage 4WD, ignored convoy orders, or disobeyed a lawful general order (by driving in a restricted area).
It's worth sharing some of these examples because they show just how easily things can go wrong.
Eat my dust
I recently conducted a fact-finding after a 40M ran off the road and into an erosion gully. Everyone was OK, but why did it happen?
At the incident site, I spent some time looking at the wheel tracks and picking up the odd bit of debris left behind. At first sight, there was no obvious explanation as to why the truck had crashed. The backtrack on the Townsville Field Training Area looked nice enough – it ran straight, made a slight curve, and then continued straight. So, why did the vehicle’s wheel tracks simply ignore the curve and instead drive straight into the erosion gully? Was the driver distracted and not looking at where they were going?
The answer soon presented itself when another convoy approached. As I watched, almost every vehicle only narrowly avoided the erosion gully. Why? Because they were too close to the vehicle in front of them. The bull dust being thrown up by the vehicles obscured pretty much everything.
The situation was that each vehicle was eating the dust of the vehicle in front. Instead of maintaining a safe distance, no driver could see where they were going; they were all driving inside their own braking distance, and no-one could stop effectively and safely if they needed to. In these circumstances, an accident was bound to happen – and it did.
Depending on our location, range briefings may direct us not to drive on the coastal saline flats. Unfortunately, we’re rarely told why. Consequently, people drive there anyway – because they want to take advantage of a short cut, or simply because they fancy driving fast on flat open ground.
While directions to avoid such terrain may sound like an effort to take away our fun, the reality is far different. That’s because some coastal saline flats comprise acid sulfate soils. Common in many parts of the world, these types of soils are saturated with water, almost oxygen-free, and contain microscopic crystals of sulfide minerals. And there are two very good reasons not to drive on them:
- You’ll get bogged and become a target – and that’s not Smart Soldiering. While the crust on the top of these soils can make them look dry, underneath it’s a different matter.
- While acid sulfate soils are safe and harmless while undisturbed, stir them up (by digging them, driving through them, landing on them, or getting bogged) and you’ll generate a witch’s brew. Once exposed, oxygen breaks down the minerals creating sulfuric acid, often below pH 2. This stuff can corrode concrete, iron, steel, and some aluminium alloys, not to mention causing skin and eye irritation. And it’s not all about you. Just one bogging can generate high acidity levels in surrounding creeks and ponds, poisoning plants and killing fish and other aquatic creatures if they’re unable to escape. So, how good do you feel now about your little 4WDriving adventure across a restricted area?
When we conduct amphibious landings, progress will often be monitored by Safety Ashore, or the Beach Master and OPFOR utilising white fleet vehicles. In carrying out their activities, all elements will necessarily conduct sand driving.
The basics for sand driving are simple:
- Use high range to keep momentum. In a medium like sand (that does not offer much traction), low range produces too much power, so you’ll simply dig in.
- Lower your tyre pressure to increase your footprint and thus increase traction.
- Drive as straight as possible and corner slowly and in a wider arc than normal. This is because if you corner too hard, your side walls will dig in, you’ll inadvertently slow down and you’ll get bogged.
- Modern cars have traction control and vehicle stability control. These functions apply the brakes without you knowing. So, you need to turn them off. Otherwise, when they automatically activate in the sand, you’ll end up digging-in.
While these basic principles of sand driving may be enough to help you out in straightforward conditions, there’s a lot more to learn to be truly competent. For example, do you know:
- When, where and how to stop a vehicle without using the brakes when you’re pointing down a slope?
- Where to drive on a beach? Avoid the wet sand because it will hide quicksand and prematurely rust the vehicle. Avoid sand that is too dry to reduce the chance of bogging.
Situational awareness extends beyond taking care of your own safety and that of your vehicle. For example, Dundee Beach in the NT is sometimes used for amphib landings and is a turtle nesting beach. Here it’s important to drive with care below the high tide mark – or at least 20 metres from the base of the dunes – away from where nests are most likely to be found. Driving over turtle nests compacts the sand resulting in one of two things: (1) the hatchlings can’t dig their way out; or (2) sex is determined by the temperature of the sand, so compaction can result in higher temps and disproportionately more female hatchlings.
We have all heard the mantra of – ‘If it’s flooded forget it’. So, why are we still seeing road deaths in flooded waters during rain events? When we go to training areas like Townsville High Range or Shoalwater Bay there are creek crossings. Some are permanent, others are tidal and others still are seasonal. And believe it or not, I’ve seen vehicles become stranded in each of them.
There are a few key things to consider before you conduct a river crossing:
- How deep is the water?
- How fast is it flowing?
- How firm is the river bed?
- Are there any deep holes or big boulders to avoid?
- What’s the exit point condition?
All this and more… like prepare your winch, drag chain or snatch strap before you even attempt the crossing. The reason is because, if you get stuck, your recovery point will be under two feet of water.
When driving through water, it’s best to choose low range and 2nd gear. Your aim is to maintain a momentum that just keeps pace with your bow wave. Slow and steady wins this race. Too fast and you can cause engine damage or risk sucking the fan into the radiator! Do not change gears nor apply the brake, slow down or stop for fear of being flooded.
In a galaxy far, far away (when I was a 2LT), I was posted as an assistant adjutant and would be routinely stabbed with conducting vehicle accident investigations. I’d reckon that over 50 per cent of the accidents I looked into resulted from someone overloading the No. 5 ½ ton trailer – typically a trailer full of water jerries doing a resup. A jerry weighs 22kg – which means the absolute maximum number that should be placed in the trailer is 22 jerries. However, the internal space allowed for 30 or more – so inevitably, that’s how they were loaded. This situation placed far too much weight on the tow hitch, which in turn lifted the front axle, which then reduced traction and negated the driver’s ability to control the vehicle. Add to this the effects of sway induced at speed, and I had plenty of vehicle accidents to investigate.
Let’s face it, when we pack our gear, there’s usually a lot of it. As our US compatriots would say ‘we’re loaded for bear’, meaning we’ve generally brought everything including the kitchen sink. Overloading a vehicle, or even driving it too close to its Gross Vehicle Mass, makes getting bogged that much easier. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to assist with unloading a vehicle, both in ‘civvy’ street and on the job (to make the vehicle lighter for recovery), I’d be a rich man. And I have to say that I’m glad my days of unpacking bogged Unimogs are over.
Them’s the brakes
It’s a lot to think about. And we haven’t even started to discuss recovery methods or driving on ice. But the examples provided above all serve to illustrate one over-arching requirement: that we need to know ourselves and our vehicle. This is the one true principle of 4WDriving. Beyond this, it’s important to remember that our vehicle’s capability – and all that recovery gear – are there to get us ‘out’ of trouble not deeper into it. If we keep these truisms in mind, we’re likely to spend far more time on the move and far less time in a mess.