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'Newcomer' caravan drivers hit the road in numbers, prompting safety warning

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Australians can’t get on a plane and travel overseas so they’re buying caravans and hitting the road instead. If they’re inexperienced, experts say, that means trouble.

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A man and a woman aged in their 50s were lucky to avoid serious injuries in a caravan crash that caused traffic havoc on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast on the weekend.

The accident, which saw their brand-new purchase smashed to pieces, comes amid a major spike in caravan sales nationwide.

The Caravan Industry Association of Australia said some states and territories recorded an increase in sales of up to 30 per cent, with newcomers accounting for about a third of the purchases.

The surge has towing and driving experts warning motorists to get educated before hitting the road.

Mike Clayton of Clayton Towing, whose staff attended the Bruce Highway crash on Sunday, said his service was responding to caravan accidents every few days.

“We do see a fair few caravan accidents, and they cause absolute mayhem because they smash into a thousand pieces,” he said.

“They cause highway blockages, they just totally destroy themselves.

“Long-term travellers could have everything they own inside just smashed to pieces — not a nice experience.

“They’re not always new to it — we’ve had experienced caravanners or people who have driven B-doubles their whole life, then jumped in a caravan and rolled over.”

Upsetting the balance

According to Clayton, issues with speed and load are the most common causes of crashes, which often start with a “swaying vehicle” and end with a rollover.

“When it happens, it happens so fast it’s not easy to get out of it,” he said.

“You just don’t want to get yourself into the position to start with.

“No doubt now we’re going to see more caravans out there, so I think people need to look at what courses they can do, and refresher courses too.

“Just to understand how the weight of a caravan works, tow ball weights, and what to do if starts to sway — how to get out of a situation like that.”

Kev Williams and Trev Whish, from Australian Four Wheel Driving and Advanced Driver Education, said a “poorly positioned load” was the most common cause of caravan crashes.

The senior trainers said while manufacturers had a responsibility to ensure caravan specifications were met and the vehicles safe to use, minor changes to a caravan’s load by the owner later could be enough to cause a major accident.

“What tends to happen is, once the owner takes over, they can upset that balance by putting too much weight on the back of their caravan or trailer,” Williams said.

“That’s one of the main reasons a caravan or trailer sways, because you’ve putting too much on the back.

“Load weight and position is important.

“So it might be set to go, but the owner might put a 20 litre fuel jerry on the back, they might add a bike rack or spare tyre — those things will easily cause problems.”

Mr Whish said he had sat in the passenger seat of a caravan that began to vigorously sway during a training course on the highway after the owner shifted a bike rack from where the manufacturer had positioned it.

“That guy put his wife, two kids, and my live in danger just by changing the dynamics of the caravan,” he said.

“It could have been a very different scenario if I wasn’t in the vehicle.”

‘It can be daunting’

Whish encouraged all caravan owners to get educated on their vehicles.

“People might spend $40,000 to $100,000 on a new vehicle, then up to $200,000 on a caravan, a lot of money,” he said.

“Trailers and caravans can be replaced, but lives can’t.

“For a few hundred extra dollars, get some training and benefit not just your life, but your family’s and other road users’ as well.”

Caravanning Queensland chief executive Jason Plant said while driving caravans took care and knowledge, it could be done comfortably and safely.

He said most caravan dealers carried out an extensive handover process, going through all aspects of the vehicle, including how to hook the caravan up and tow it.

“It can be daunting, but it need not be if you are given the right information and you know your vehicle and its limitations,” he said.

“Dealers should be going through explaining the weight, how it works and how the caravan’s weight impacts the towing capabilities.

“With the right advice, the right education, you can be on the road very safely.”

– ABC / Tara Cassidy

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