Our camper, affectionately called ‘the Escape Pod’, promises a level of comfort and convenience on the road, regardless of the environmental conditions or the remoteness of the locations we travel to.
But there’s another sensation that I feel when we unleash the camper. And that’s a heightened awareness of my added responsibilities as a driver. The simple fact is towing affects the performance of my towing vehicle, and towing itself requires additional knowledge and skills. These skills relate to the act of driving itself — as well as to the practice of loading and coupling a camper to make it safe on the road. The rules of the road define some of these obligations, including to keep the camper under control, to prohibit anyone riding in it while under tow, and to operate within manufacturer’s specifications for tow weights. But there’s a lot more to the safe operation of a tow-tug and trailer than the rules cover.
For example, reviewing the NSW Road Transport guidelines, I’m reminded of issues such as: the tendency of trailer’s to ‘cut-in’ on corners and curves; the necessity to increase stopping distances; the need to use a lower gear when travelling downhill in order to increase control; the risk of trailer ‘sway’ including measures to mitigate its likelihood and to deal with it if it happens; the obligation to keep my trailer in serviceable condition; the need to check my load periodically to ensure it hasn’t shifted; the responsibility to ensure that couplings are adequate for the task and to use appropriate safety chains; and the need to consider whether load equalisers are necessary. The list is long. And it’s all perfectly reasonable.
What I find interesting is that I was tested on very similar matters when I wanted to attain a Light Rigid licence to drive our ex-Military 6x6 Land Rover Perentie. The theory exam for this class of licence covered areas of knowledge related to vehicle mass, size load distribution and load restraint. And then there’s the practical component that involves loading, manoeuvring and driving the rig on the open road. In many respects, the process for obtaining a Light/Medium-Rigid licence is very similar to that endured by teenagers intent on obtaining their standard driver’s licence. The fact that I’ve had one of these for over 30 years, as well as a motorcycle licence, makes no difference. If I want to hop behind the wheel of our 6x6, I’m a ‘newbie’ so far as the authorities are concerned. I need to prove that I’m fit to take on the responsibility.
And that’s OK by me.
But it makes me wonder how come Big Brother’s not looking over my shoulder when I decide to adopt a camper lifestyle. Provided I’ve got the cash to buy one, no-one seems particularly interested in where I’m obtaining all those skills that allow me to meet my obligations under the various motor transport guidelines. And if I were involved in a motor accident because my skills and knowledge weren’t up to the task, what happens then? Regardless of any penalty imposed by the State for my errors and omissions, the real penalty would likely be self-generated. And it would involve a sense of overwhelming guilt if I’d caused irreparable damage or harm when I knew I should have — and could have — been better equipped to handle my rig.
SO WHERE DOES THIS ALL LEAVE US?
A poll in the popular Caravanner’s Forum a couple of years back asked its members if they supported the introduction of a test for a caravan towing licence. Following a spirited debate about the case for introducing towing licences in Australia, almost 70 per cent of those who responded said: ‘No’. Which is probably no big surprise. After all, not many people like the prospect of more regulation where they’ve previously been operating with relative impunity.
But there’s an old saying: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. And when it comes to towing a rig, the price of being allowed to ‘hook-up and head-out’ is the responsibility to be properly prepared for the task.
For some, the solution may be to talk with an experienced friend or colleague who’s been towing for years and seems to know their stuff. Just remember that their driving experience is not your experience, their rig is not your rig, and they may have no experience operating a camper in the places you intend to travel. For my part, there’s no substitute for training and most accredited 4x4 trainers also provide instruction in caravan and camper towing. So it’s not hard to come by.
While professional training will involve cost, when it comes to protecting our families and other road users, what price is right?