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.

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