An icon of rural vehicles, the bull bar is a accessory fitted to vehicles to minimise the damage in collisions. The typical justification for fitting is the high rates of collisions with wild animals on rural roads, but do the figures add up?
RACV (unusually for typically secretive insurers) released figures for the number of insurance claims arising from collisions with animals within Victoria, they quoted 4561 claims for the 2014 year averaging $4481 each. From their market share, estimates of the insured population, and estimating the number of unreported collisions we can put a floor on the number of vehicle/animal collisions in Victoria at 20,000 annually with the total figure likely much higher than this but including many accidents without any damage.
One of the often repeated “needs” for fitting a bull bar is that it will protect the occupants, yet with the huge number of animal collisions each year only 2 vehicle occupants are killed in vehicle/animal collisions on average. Contrast this to the 200 pedestrians that are killed each year in vehicle collisions.
The ATSB (now BITRE) has some dated figures on the relative safety of vehicles fitted with bull bars. There appeared no strong connection between the safety of occupants inside vehicles with bull bars or the risk of death to pedestrians posed by bull bars, although injuries were shifted from predominantly head/neck injuries in collisions without bull bars to trunk/legs in collisions with bull bars. The largest difference (which still had low confidence) could be seen in the fatality rate of other vehicles involved in a collision with vehicle having a bull bar. Consider this vehicle:
Its bull bar sits proud of the bumper and the first point of contact with a vertical plane would be the top edge of the bull bar approximately 1200mm above the ground. In a t-bone collision with a car this would be through the windows at head height (the Australian guides place eye height at 1100mm). In a frontal collision with a pedestrian this point sits above the centre of gravity of the vast majority of people (99.99%), who would be knocked under the front of the vehicle into the axle or wheels. the vehicle has been raised far beyond the permissible amount and the wheels now have extensive clearance from the body work, the wheel arches and mud flaps failing to meet the minimum requirements for protecting other road users.
Although an obscure corner of vehicle requirements, the lack of routine vehicle inspections in Victoria leads to these sorts of non-compliant vehicles remaining on the roads. Further this vehicle has sharp protrusions from the top of the bull bar in violation of the more well known safety requirements:
42.9.1 No vehicle must be equipped with:
18.104.22.168 any object or fitting, not technically essential to such vehicle, which protrudes from any part of the vehicle so that it is likely to increase the risk of bodily injury to any person;
22.214.171.124 any object or fitting technically essential to such vehicle unless its design, construction and conditions and the manner in which it is affixed to the vehicle are such as to reduce to a minimum the risk of bodily injury to any person;
126.96.36.199 any object or fitting which, because it is pointed or has a sharp edge, is likely to increase the risk of bodily injury to any person; or
188.8.131.52 any bumper bar the end of which is not turned towards the body of the vehicle to a sufficient extent to avoid any risk of hooking or grazing.
The vagueness of these requirements have happily been clarified by the states, and Vicroads distribute “Vehicle Standards Information” to communicate their intent more clearly. From VSI1 we can take the following simple quote:
Fittings such as driving lamp brackets or fishing rod holders must not protrude above the top or forward of the bull bar
But of course without vehicle inspections being conducted, people will simply ignore this and drive around with whatever they please fitted to the fronts of their vehicles:
In case the fittings on the vehicle didn’t give it away, the numberplate firmly establishes this is a recreational vehicle. Elevating the front of the vehicle and increasing the front approach angle to extremes such as these has no practical application on public roads, there are recreational four wheel drive tracks accessible in state forests and national parks but why should the public be exposed to the added risk when the owners could use more appropriate vehicles around town or underrun protection as required for trucks could be fitted when not off road. This modified vehicle dwarfs the stock model behind, its low bumper providing a much safer impact to other road users.
Even Vicroads note in their VSI1:
Bull bars may provide some protection to the front of the vehicle in low speed collisions. However, they are likely to be of little or no benefit in most other situations.
A bull bar fitted to a passenger vehicle may result in greater injuries to other road users such as pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists in a crash situation.
They clearly understand the risk these designs are posing to other road users and communicate it clearly but don’t step in to prevent it occurring, even ignoring the simple requirement to have no protruding parts:
These LED light bars have become fashionable in recent years and last year the vehicle standards were revised to allow these arrays of light. Owing to their indiscriminate beam patterns throwing light in all directions they were previously only possible to fit as “courtesy” (work) lights that could not be used on road, now that they are grouped with driving lights it is the responsibility of the driver to only use them where they will not dazzle other road users. But the requirement to fit them inside a bullbar is ignored as is the case with driving lamps:
Here complete with an unused antenna mount that projects bolts forward into other users. Finding these examples did not require exhaustive searching but the majority of bull bars are fitted with non-compliant accessories making the vehicle unroadworthy. Consider the “nudge bar” that provides little to no physical protection to the vehicle through its flimsy mounting, where its sole function is a place to mount driving lights:
With the option to mount the lights within the bar, the owner has instead chosen the non-complaint top mounting. So those are a group of bad examples, what does a better example look like?
A fully enclosed mounting for the driving lights preventing any sharp parts protruding. For a full bull bar:
This factory branded bull bar keeps the front protrusion low to the ground and sweeps backward following the shape of the vehicle. Inside the front hoop there is space for driving lights entirely behind the bar and the lowest part of the bumper includes recessed mounting for a winch. The antenna mounting could be improved but it is below the top of the bull bar and the spring fitting would flex in any accident.
But how necessary is the bulbar? Returning to the incidences of animal collisions above if we assume even distribution of these events (wildly overestimating them in the urban areas) then owners are exposed to a monetary risk of 20,000 accidents x $4481 per accident / 4,600,000 registered vehicles for approximately $20 per year over the life of the vehicle, the fitting of a bull bar would not pay off even if there was a substantial protection to the occupants life (which is unproven). For those living and working in rural or remote areas where their exposure would be higher a typical cost of $1500-2500 would still pose a poor investment unless they are intentionally using the bull bar to run into things (a not uncommon agricultural use!) or are exposed routinely to cattle.
Even the manufacturers of bull bars carefully avoid making misleading claims about their safety benefits to the occupants, ARB only claiming protection against:
substantially improved protection for vulnerable mechanical components
Australia’s strict advertising laws doing their job, but the clever copywriters weaving a
safety protection narrative into the product to sell it. So the economics don’t add up, bull bars pose a safety threat to other road users, and the non-compliant examples aren’t being eliminated, the laws are all in place to protect the public, but once again they are impotent without enforcement.
The sad reality in all of this is that the demand for a work vehicle capable of carrying heavy loads or towing was already solved in Australia, the uniquely practical and widely appreciated utility (ute):
Here fitted out for a tradesperson the ute combines an open tray over a heavy live axle for load carrying. This particular model includes the ability to carry a greater than one ton/tonne (whichever measure you choose) load and being real wheel drive is ideal for towing. Further it has passive safety compared to the high flying trucks with its low centre of gravity reducing the possibility of rollover, and the low front end even if fitted with a bull bar remains pedestrian friendly. But the multinational owners of have pulled out of manufacturing in Australia and the factories which produced these unique vehicles are closing within a year.
So why is all this not an issue? We need only look at the government, with the current Victorian Legislative Council (upper house) having 2 of its 40 seats occupied by the “Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party” who are very concerned about the:
vilification of four-wheel driving
Well when your chosen recreation poses a safety threat to the public, you should be vilified. There are many in the industry trying to do the right thing (though they fail to put such disclaimers in their product) and they should be backed up with enforcement of the road rules. Other recreational uses of motor vehicles such as car/truck/motorcycle racing on closed tracks has the participants transporting their unroadworthy vehicles to the location, Vicroads even recognises that agricultural users may need access to the public roads with their non-compliant vehicles but they exclude recreational use explicitly. As such you will see recreationally used quad bikes dutifully towed to the location of their use, but recreational four wheels drive trucks see no such restrictions.
The militarisation of the roads needs to be curtailed, although the road toll is trending downward its leaving pedestrians behind and the focus of road safety needs to turn away from vehicle occupants and consider the overall impacts on society. Australia controls dangerous dogs, its time to control dangerous vehicles and have the recreational vehicles held to the same standard as road transport.