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Navigating the Wide Open Road

The Northern Territory is home to the largest road trains in the country and, with 70 per cent of our roads unsealed, it’s important to know the do’s and don’ts of regional road travel.

Words: Ellen Morgan

Caravan, campervan or 4WD – no matter how you holiday on wheels, the road rules and general driving etiquette can be confusing, depending on your vehicle and the type of road you’re travelling on. With the Northern Territory home to some of the largest road trains in the country and a patchwork of highways with differing surfaces, any journey through the Top End or Red Centre is likely to be met with its fair share of challenges.

Whether you’re faced with a tricky overtaking situation, a roadside parking conundrum or you need to refuel, it’s important to brush up on recommended road behaviour, conditions and infrastructure throughout the Territory for the safety of not only yourself but all other road users.

Varying road surfaces

Whether sealed, unsealed or ‘beef roads’ – single lane roads primarily used as beef transport networks – the roads you travel on around the Top End could vary vastly.

With two dry wet seasons behind us, it’s important to note that road surfaces will both look and perform differently to how they usually would.

Northern Territory Road Transport Association Executive Officer Louise Bilato says it’s vital people are aware that road surfaces may change regularly on their journey, and their drive can be further affected by weather and vehicle type.

“People may have travelled on our unsealed roads previously, but they can look very different right now to when they were last on the road,” she says.
“They may be very corrugated due to the dry conditions.”

This can cause unwanted movement in a vehicle, tyre damage and anxiety for drivers, which can impair decision making.  “Driving to the conditions is a simple thing to say, but it is a really important point to make, particularly if you are towing a caravan or a trailer, or you’re in a vehicle that’s slightly higher like a Winnebago.”

The differing centre of gravity and changing weight distribution when towing a campervan or caravan can add challenges to driving conditions that you wouldn’t otherwise experience in a small vehicle on its own. That’s why, it’s important to keep your vehicle and the road conditions in mind when making driving decisions.

Road Trains

Making up one sixth of Australia’s size, the Territory is home to some of the country’s largest road trains. With a lot of land to traverse and a stack of produce to move, it makes sense that triple or quad road trains (measuring up to 53.5m) abound in the North.

Whether you’re an NT local or not, an encounter with a road train can be a daunting experience, particularly if you’re looking to overtake them.

Ms Bilato recommends staying back and remaining cautious and patient if you’re unfamiliar with the road.

When travelling along the national highway networks, waiting for a passing lane is the safest option.
“If there are two or more lanes, we encourage someone driving for recreational purposes to slow down and stay back from the road train,” she says.

“If you haven’t already got your lights on, turn them on to let the road train know you’re behind them. They will often then slow down for you to pass or indicate to let you know if safe to do so.”  Ms Bilato says one of the most common mistakes is underestimating how long it can take to pass a road train. 

“Always leave a little more time to pass than you think and focus on the white line rather than the tyres as you’re passing. Often people can get the wobbles when they pass a road train.”  When driving on a narrow bitumen or unsealed road, be even more cautious. “It’s about the people in the smaller vehicle being aware that it’s much more difficult for road trains to do anything if they’re on a single lane road.”

If you’re travelling in the opposite direction, Ms Bilato says the best thing to do is to slow down, be patient, move to the side of the road (if safe to do so) and let the road train or truck pass.  If you’re travelling in the same direction, it’s best to simply stay back to avoid the dust and keep your lights on to let them know you’re there. Overtaking is not recommended on these roads.

“If you look at our road statistics, we have about 50 deaths a year, on average, and a lot of those are rollovers of single cars – it’s about people’s skill base and really not being fully attuned to the environment they’re in.”

Another top tip if you have a radio in your vehicle is to use it to communicate with road train drivers. All you need to do is simply turn it to channel 40 and ask the driver to let you know when it is safe to pass.

“A caravanner might be doing 80km/h and a truck might be travelling a long distance at 100km/h, but if they’ve got the opportunity to communicate with the truck driver that makes it a lot safer,” Ms Bilato says.

Road trains can take up to 1km to stop, given their size and weight, so pre-warning a driver that you’re on the road and perhaps travelling slower, or even turning/stopping due to a breakdown or wildlife on the road, can be a lifesaver.

Rest Stops

Across the Territory, there are many truck parking bays designed for truck drivers as well as larger rest areas more suited to caravans. Caravanners travelling through the NT should be considerate and plan ahead to identify suitable rest areas, leaving the truck parking bays for the truckies.

While not illegal to stop in these bays (unless otherwise signposted), it can create a safety hazard for road train drivers.

“Truck stops are intended to support truck drivers to manage their fatigue risk whilst working so it is imperative they be accessible,” Ms Bilato says.

With a number of parking bays designed specifically for caravans along the highway network, make sure you map out your journey and only stop in designated areas.

If you want to plan out the stops along your trek, there’s information on some of the more prominent stops at nt.gov.au/driving.

Refuelling

While there’s generally a collection of remote roadhouses dotted throughout the Territory, the COVID-19 pandemic has led a number of regional petrol stations to close. Whether temporary or permanent, these closures mean travellers need to plan ahead even more than usual.

“Whether they have reopened or not, many may not be open 24 hours a day anymore, so travellers will need to make sure they are able to be self-sufficient, or map out what stops are still operational.”

Ms Bilato says many locals and roadhouse owners will gladly share this information with visitors, so it can pay to ask as you go to make sure you know where your next fuel stop is on the map.

For more information or advice on getting out and about on the road, visit nt.gov.au/driving/safety

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