Caravanning country roads – whether it’s the red back-roads of the outback or hinterland highways – there is always an abundance of kangaroos, emus, goats, sheep and cattle.
During a visit to Maleny Dairies on the Sunshine Coast for a farmer’s perspective on the problems that occur when animals and roads mix, I witnessed the problem first hand as a intemperate driver ploughed through the herd, nearly causing harm to him, his vehicle, the stock handlers and your hapless correspondent. It brought the danger very close to home. Here’s our guide to the legality side of giving way to cattle.
Talk to any of the automotive organisations, such as the RACV, RACQ or NRMA, and they will warn you of the dangers of coming across animals on the road. When it comes to smacking into native animals, Roads and Maritime Services, NSW, advises drivers to be aware of wild animals by “being prepared, especially near sunrise and sunset”. Its advice when approaching animals on the road is to slow down, especially when you see warning signs, and to stay alert, as animals are unpredictable, and brake safely to stop. And finally, the organisation says that it’s safer to hit an animal than it is to swerve and potentially lose control of your vehicle.
It is potentially even more problematic when the animal you encounter is farm livestock. It’s an issue that has regularly caught the eye of various authorities across Australia.
This is because it is sometimes covered by an area of law that dates back to ancient England and is aimed at ensuring animals don’t constitute an unreasonable public hazard.
When a steer, cow, bull or bullock, or any other form of livestock, wanders onto a public road and causes an accident, the pastoralists would be liable for what’s known as cattle trespass, for the damage caused to the vehicle and for the injuries sustained by the occupants. But that doesn’t mean its okay to plough into a herd hoping they’ll move. Nonetheless, rules and regulations vary from state to state.
For example, Elders Insurance says that Queensland still abides by an archaic common law rule that says livestock have right of way when they are on a road. It says this law means that any damage they cause to people or vehicles they come into contact with cannot be blamed on their owner.
Irrespective of the circumstances of the crash, unless local by-laws say otherwise, Queensland legislation prevents any recovery against the owner of the livestock in the event of stray stock causing an accident. That should give the unruly driver I witnessed cause to pause and reflect.
FENCING THE PROBLEM
Other states require owners to ensure their livestock are confined to their property. That means producers need to ensure livestock do not wander onto roads where they can create a serious road safety issue. However, this is certainly not a hard and fast rule – circumstances might mitigate any black and white interpretation.
Beyond differences in state laws, local council officers can issue landowners with notices to confine stock and improve fencing where livestock is not adequately confined.
Regardless of a plethora of by-laws, regulations and legislation, the common element is the fact that livestock on country roads can represent a significant danger to road users, stock and stock handlers alike.
FIRST HAND ADVICE
Talking to Maleny Dairies farmer Keith Hopper, whose family has been pastoralists since the late 1940s, it became clear that he understands how difficult moving stock can be. His experience is easy to understand given Keith’s property lies on the rapidly developing outskirts of the beautiful Sunshine Coast hinterland town of Maleny.
Keith explained that from a practical perspective, “The best thing to do when you come across stock on a road is to stop and wait. You normally won’t have to wait long before the stock move off the road.”
When it came to drivers coming across stray, unaccompanied stock, he said, “Unless you know where the stock have come from, slow down, drive with caution, stop if necessary and then report the strays to the local council or police.” He advised against drivers trying to move unfamiliar stock off the road. That’s because “cattle are large, unpredictable animals. And how would a driver know where they came from?”
LOOKING FOR SIGNS
Agriculture Victoria reminds road users to be vigilant when travelling on roads that are regularly used for grazing or moving stock. The organisation says that all motorists travelling on country roads need to be on the look-out for “stop” and “give way to stock” signs that are displayed by farmers when they have stock on roads. It reminds motorists to be aware that while pastoralists do try to keep their stock off the road, it’s impossible for pastoralists to mend fences 24/7. Quite simply, Agriculture Victoria says drivers shouldn’t assume livestock are always fenced.
Main Roads Western Australia reminds drivers that “many major roads such as the Great Northern Highway pass through large cattle stations where stock may roam at will” and “due to the huge distances involved, fencing is impractical or limited to certain areas. Drivers should exercise similar precautions as they would against kangaroos and be aware that horses and cattle may even be more easily startled by an approaching vehicle and act very unpredictably”.
IN CASE OF AN ACCIDENT
Maleny Dairies’ Keith Hopper says that, if you do hit a stray animal, it’s best to notify the local council or a local veterinary surgeon. He’s right. Vets are obligated to render assistance to an injured animal under the Veterinary Surgeons Act and that assistance is usually free.
THE LAST WORD
And to my thoughtless mate, who reckoned his expensive car could plough through a large herd of half tonne dairy cows near Maleny Dairies, this lesson’s free – the brake is beside the accelerator. Use it. Stop, be safe and think.