One life – treasure it
We had planned this trip for a long time – an epic journey via the Augrabies waterfalls to Alexander Bay, Richtersveld and the Namaqua region. Either I would take my two sons in the Cruiser and meet my wife in Cape Town ( depending on her workload), or we would again, like the previous year, use both the Cruiser and her Landy. Two days before our journey, we found out my wife could do the whole trip. She was overjoyed at the prospect of driving her 2007 Defender 90 with its 2.4 L Ford Puma diesel engine. She previously owned a Td5 and also completed several Land Rover advanced driving courses. She was a careful and competent driver with no accidents during her 34 years of driving. We felt no pressure with time. We travelled in convoy at a fuel optimising speed, below the speed limit, and in good spirits. But that’s when tragedy struck. Suddenly I saw the Landy veering towards the left hand shoulder of the road and then going into a semi- skid towards the right. I braked hard and watched the havoc unfold in my rear view mirror. The Landy took a violent swerve to the left and blue smoke billowing from the tyres, which bit into the tar. The vehicle overturned and started rolling. On the Defender the glass in the windscreen represents the strongest structural element, as this was shatered it resulted in the total destruction of the vehicle’s superstructure. There was no roll cage or any structural protection able to absorb any significant impact. My wife, who was strapped in, was flung from underneath her safety belt, towards the centre of the vehicle and windscreen where her head impacted the roof lining, as was evident by the blood smears. She was being flung around the interior of the vehicle and on the second roll of the vehicle the momentum of her body broke the roof off the Landy and she was ejected from the vehicle. When my younger son and I got to my wife she was still alive, unconscious, but breathing on her own. My oldest son was still strapped into his seat and after a quick check for pulse, breathing and pupil response, it was clear that my son had died and he suffered serious cranial injuries. We managed to bring my wife round and she was very badly injured and in deep shock. I held my wife in my arms as she passed away, half an hour before an ambulance arrived. The main cause of the accident was loss of control of the vehicle. Careful observations of the accident markings on the road surface, as well as the state of the wreck, did not indicate any mechanical failure nor was there any evidence of tyre, suspension or steering failure. The root cause of the accident stems in my opinion from the 1948 design of the vehicle, which has not sufficiently evolved. Even the fitting of electronic aids, like ABS, has not been able to address the inherent flaws of the vehicle. The wheelbase of the Defender 90 is 35 per cent longer than the vehicle width. Coupled with the adoption of modern engines, which are shorter, it resulted in the centre of mass moving towards the rear. With both the engine and passengers being located between the axles, in close proximity meant that the vehicle, having a track width similar to the wheelbase, has no real polar moment of inertia. If it gets into a spin there is no heavy lump of engine, located close to an end of the vehicle, to determine where the vehicle will go. Add to this the tyres that were significantly wider than the original equipment of years ago, and you have a vehicle that is inherently unstable, does not naturally have the ability to recover from a spin, and can no longer slide sideways due to the higher grip of the wider tyres. Zero roll- over protection makes the situation worse. If you have one of these vehicles it could be in your best interest to carefully read this narrative, and think about these matters, lest you too have a holiday that ends badly.