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Are safety ramps really that safe?

Months ago, Main Roads in South Australia was doing upgrade work on the arrester bed on the down track into Adelaide while it was closed for three weeks. 

Some of you will recall the idea they had that a small rigid bumper truck would be able to stop a loaded B-double and the animated discussion about that on social media and in the trucking press. 

They must have got lucky and not had to try that idea out. It ranks right up there with the most counter intuitive ideas I’ve ever heard, to intentionally hit another vehicle on the road really does go against the grain.

That whole conversation started me thinking about arrester beds in general. We all know what they are, we’ve seen how the kitty litter works on the racetrack. The principle is the same on the highway.

I’ve often driven down hills and thought some ramps are so unkempt, poorly placed or aligned to the road, too narrow, poorly, or not lit, not properly signed and generally difficult to judge with the overgrown and weird entrances.

If the time ever comes and you actually need to use a ramp you want it to save you, not potentially kill you, it needs to be as easy as possible to use. 

Mount Ousley on the Princess Highway heading down to Wollongong gets a few too many visitors.

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need safety ramps but they’re installed for a reason: to give a driver an opportunity to save the situation when it’s all gone wrong. 

But are they safe? There are a few that seem to get regular visitors too. We have to wonder why that is. 

No-one is going to work with the idea it’s going to be fun to try out a safety ramp. 

How does it end up happening? There’s the obvious situation where a truck with poorly adjusted or inoperative brakes simply gets away from the driver. The driver gets it wrong and doesn’t realise the problem until it’s too late, unsafe driving with excessive speed, disregarding the road signage, and then simple inexperience. 

This then leads me to ask why do some not go for the arrester bed? I’ve had many conversations with other drivers about this. The consensus seems to be that some think they’ll “get it back” and fear that using the bed will open up a can of worms and expenses that will become bigger than Ben Hur. 

I tried to find out what happens when trucks end up in arrester beds. Is there a fine? What does to cost etc. it seems there’s no specific fine for using one in an emergency. There are fines for obstruction of an arrester bed. Parking there for example. 

The costs of ending up in the bed extend to the cost of recovery and then repair of the vehicle, restoring the bed to a condition where it is ready for its next visitor and potentially fines or dealing with the inevitable investigation of the circumstances leading to the vehicle using the arrestor bed. 

Ultimately, drivers need to come to grips with the idea you’re going to be better off hitting the bed than trying to ride it out.

Is there a standard? There are documents out there that define the standard and recommended construction of truck arrester beds in Australia. If you want to dive in and have a read for yourself, use search terms “arrester bed construction requirements” in your favourite search engine.

www.tmr.qld.gov.au  hosts the “Road Planning and Design Manual” April 2002. Chapter 15 Section 17.7.4 considers the issues and lays out the standard. Design of Arrester Beds and Escape Exits states “an arrester bed is a safe and efficient facility to deliberately decelerate and stop vehicles by transferring their kinetic energy” they then go into great detail discussing research findings, construction, recommended materials, location and finally maintaining the beds.

Runaway vehicle facilities should not be constructed where an out-of-control vehicle would need to cross oncoming traffic. On divided roadways where adequate space is available in the median, safety ramps can be located on either side of the carriageway with adequate advance warning signs prior to the safety ramp exit. (See Queensland Department of Main Roads – Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices for signing requirements.) 

On the application of test results in designing and constructing arrester beds they found, ‘10mm diameter round uncrushed river gravel is the preferred material to use in the beds. 

Sand has problems of drainage, compaction and contamination and should not be used unless alternative materials are unavailable. Beds using sand will require a strict maintenance regime to ensure their continued effectiveness. (All beds require regular maintenance.)

Knowing all that we’re faced with the reality of what we see on our highways. Have a look at some of these ramps. A truck width, or just a bit more wide. Not groomed. Full of weeds. Limited to no access for emergency services and recovery vehicles. 

Some couldn’t be more wrong. 

There are really two arrester beds in the country that we on the road seem to hear about that get regular visitors: Mount Ousley on the Princess Highway heading down to Wollongong and the South-Eastern Freeway down from the Adelaide Hills. 

They are a contrast in construction and by the look of it, maintenance as well. There are videos showing how to descend these declines on YouTube. There is also a simulator for the SE Freeway. 

I’d like to be able to point out where that is, how to access it or what needs to be done to get on and have a turn. The last mention of it I’ve seen was last February. 

Wouldn’t it be an eye-opening experience to sit in a simulator and have the “run out of brakes” scenario on the SE Freeway and see just how hard it is to get it into the bed.

The costs of ending up in the bed extend to the cost of recovery and then repair of the vehicle.

Other ramps are really exit roads. Typical of these is the one at Mooney Mooney on the M1 heading toward Sydney NSW. It’s a steep incline cut into the wall of rock beside the freeway and sealed. 

I wonder what happens when the truck comes to a stop in there? It has no brakes, that’s why it’s there, it’s got to roll back and inevitably get tangled up in there. How dangerous is that going to be to recover?

Finally, it doesn’t have to be gravel and sand. There are other technologies that work and could be considered on our roads to address areas where construction of long escape roads or ramps is impossible. 

In Wyoming, US, at a place called Teton Pass they’ve installed a “catchnet” system that uses a system of netting, pulleys, cables and canisters to decelerate trucks. It is pretty hard on the trucks and does do some damage.

We don’t get enough exposure to emergency situations. The safest way to do this is to have time in a simulator and some time with a driving assessor to polish the skills. 

The best time to think about what you should do in an emergency isn’t in the middle of one. It’s in a safe environment where you can try out your responses and learn from others. 

I’ve long advocated for stricter licensing requirements, tougher testing and annual training to keep a commercial vehicle licence. This should include both a theory and practical component as well as a medical regardless of driver age at the commercial level.

You can contact me via @theoztrucker on twitter, On The Road Podcast (@otrpodcastaus) on Facebook or go to www.ontheroadpodcast.com.au to leave a comment, email me directly mike@ontheroadpodcast.com.au or call me on 0418 722 488.

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