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The Suicide Artists
I have chosen the title to this hub very deliberately. First let me say, I have absolutely no desire to cause offence to or additional emotional pain to families who find themselves in the depths of grief as the result of a loved one has chosen to take that very lonely pathway out.
However. I'm regularly faced with a group of people who seem to have a death wish. I'm refering to lone cyclists who insist on riding a pushbike across Australia on a roads that carry many thousands of tonnes of cargo in heavy vehicles and other traffic each day. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoy cycling. My best mate is a keen cyclist. In fact, two years ago, he and his wife carted their tandem and associated camping gear all the way to Europe to have a look around and take in the Tour de France, returning home exhilerated but many kilos lighter.
So what am I going on about?
Let me tell you a very scary story that actually happened, not last century or last decade, but just last week. Tuesday the 13th of September 2011 on a undulating stretch of the famed road across the Nullabor Plain just into South Australian between Border Village and Nullabor Roadhouse in fact.
I was about a 1000 k's into an eight and half thousand kilomtre trip from Kalgoorlie W.A. to Charters Towers, north Qld. I was eastbound, driving my B-double fully loaded with goods for a mine site and as I approached a bend in the road, I observed a westbound B-double with a bad attitude. The truck was all hunched up and heavily under brakes. Obviously the driver had a problem that was not apparent to me. At that point, the distance between us was about half a football field, say 50 odd metres and we had a closing speed of around 190 to 180 kilometres an hour.
As I rounded the bend and straightended up I saw his problem.
Before I go any further, let me describe the road just there. It is a very beautiful stretch of road. This main east west Australian arterial highway runs right along the coast of the Great Australian Bight which is only a couple of hundred metres away to the (my) right. The ocean is deep blue and stretches in uninterupted magnificence and splendor all the way to Antactica. To the left is a vast treeless plain that stretches out of sight, again, for thousands of kilometres. The roadway it's self is rather narrow. It starts on one side with a gravel verge of about 2 metres, then the grey bitument, no fog line on tht stretch, only the white dotted line demarcating the two lanes that leaves only about a foot or 300 milimetres between trucks as we pass and then the gravel verge on the other side. Outside of the gravel verge on both sides is a drainage ditch which is quite sharp and then the low scrub of the Nullabor Plain. During the winter, the whole area is fog bound for hours each morning, and most of the time there is the strong prevailing westerly gale blowing it's head off, being in the "Roaring Forties" of the Southern latitudes. You get the picture.
So, back to the story. As I round the bend I see something I had not been able to see before. Out of the busy black of the radiator and other dark shapes in the front of the oncoming truck, I eventualy pick out a cyclist towing a little trailer, all dark clothes, dark helmet, dark bike and gear with the truck just metres behind bearing down on him. Apparently the cyclist was oblivious to the fact that he was at that point about two breaths from death, because he was smiling up at me.
Again, let me pause a moment. The other truck driver would have been watching both the cyclist and me for at least a minute or more and assessing distances and the point at which we will all meet and thinking through his options. Let's just think about the choices he had. He had just three:
1) Pull out and pass the cyclist right then hoping I would work out what was happening. As previously stated, the road is very narrow for a national highway right there, and that would put him half across my lane and he and I would be eyeball to eyeball very quickly, taking on another B-Double also weighing a gross 62.5 tonne. Not a good plan!
2) Going bush. This is a once or a twice in a driving career maneuver one hopes and prays one does not have to use, but if you round a corner and there is a school bus stopped in the middle of the road, you do it and worry about the consequences to yourself later. And even in the most innocuous circumstances, it always means at the very least, damage to equipment and loss. It was his last resort.
3) Standing on the brakes trying to wash off as much speed as possible whilst at the same time laying into the air horn trusting that the cyclist will eventually hear him coming and GET OFF THE ROAD so he don't have to live the rest of his life with another's on his conscious was the only other option.
So, what actually did happen I hear you ask?
As soon as I rounded the bend and appropriated the situation, the cyclist's presence and immanent danger, the lack of options for the other driver. I immediately pulled my truck to the left onto the verge and began washing off speed by activating engine braking, foot braking and beginning to change back through the gears to burn up some of my vehicle's inertia, sending up clouds of dust and throwing rocks everywhere. Simultaneously, the other driver pull to his truck to his right , out onto the centre of the road that I had cleared for him, around the cyclist and we all passed side by side in a moment. Eventually I found the right gear, (I've only got eighteen to choose from) and got my outfit back on the black and straight when the other bloke crackled over the UHF, "Oh mate... thank you, thank you. I was blowing the horn but he wouldn't get off!"
I was still dumb struck but stammered out, "Mate.. I didn't see him till the last minute. You OK?" "Yeah mate.. thanks." was his only reply and then we both had other vehicles moving into our zones and that awful moment was past.
So, why did this fairly regular day to day occurrence nearly end in tragedy.
On reflection, three issues stand out:
1) The cyclist was not wearing any high vis, reflective or even colourful clothing nor was there a colourful flag waving in the breaze. There was absolutely nothing to help me pick him out or distinguish him and his gear from his apparent background. I was blind to him until I was very close and therefore unable to take prior evasive action, like inform the other driver I would move over so he could pass safely.
2) I noticed as I passed, the cyclist was wearing a scaff wrapped around his head under his helmet completely covering his ears and cheeks. I assume this was to protect his face from sun and wind burn. This possibly would account for his absolute lack of indentifying the approach of the vehicle from behind him. Not withstanding the roar of 500 odd horses pulling 34 big black rubber tyres burdened with 62.5 tonnes of truck and gear rushing at him at 100 k's an hour.
3) No mirror. No idea!
You will have noticed that I expressed the title in the plural, but yet mentioned only one cyclist.
To my further horror, the following day over on the eastern side of South Australia, in half an hour, I came across two set of two cyclists traveling in the same direction as me, which should have been no drama. However, this time it was me who was having pass cyclists on a blind corner. All I could do was to get on the UHF and announce, "Eastbound B-double passing cyclists on blind corner", hoping that any unseen approaching vehicle would register that the signal was strong and clear and that posssibly I was on the other side of the corner they were approaching and do so with care.
I had another couple of parragraphs in my head about licensing and training and other road users etc etc. However, I'm still affected so the following will surfice.
I completed the remaining 6000 k's to Charters Towers and back without any further incident.
Dags the Drover 23.9.2011