Driver Knowledge Tests

Driving or riding in strong winds

This article covers tips for cars, motorbikes and heavy vehicles when driving in strong winds, and includes considering what other road users may do.

NSW holds positions three to eight in the most windiest places in Australia (around the Newcastle area), with a mean wind speed of 32kph, NSW has experienced measured gusts up to 174kph with estimated gusts up to 230kph, therefore knowing how to deal with strong winds is important.

The Road User’s Handbook doesn’t offer any advice for driving in strong winds but, as we’ll see in the videos below, side winds can be very dangerous. This video (language NSFW) shows how high winds can catch a truck’s trailer and threaten to tip it over.

High winds predominantly affect:

  • Motorcyclists
  • Cyclists
  • Drivers of high-sided heavy vehicles, including buses (more so if they or their trailers are empty)
  • Vehicles towing caravans or high-sided light trailers

Watching out for other road users

Regardless of the vehicle you are driving, when the wind is strong you can expect that cyclists and motorcyclists will be struggling. Even pedestrians can be blown over in extremely windy places such as Wellington, NZ. Cyclists can veer into your path if struck by a strong gust.

This video shows how difficult it is for cyclists to maintain a straight line in a strong wind.

Watching out for debris

Strong winds can transport lethally sharp sheets of metal and other debris such as shop sandwich boards, cardboard boxes and other rubbish. As well as being left strewn on the road where it can puncture your tyres or cause damage to your vehicle, it can hit you, which is why it pays to wear full protective gear on a motorbike.

Trees can be blown over into the road, and tree branches will almost certainly be dislodged. These are particularly dangerous at night because they are difficult to see. They sometimes can pull power lines down which is even more dangerous if you run into them.

On roads next to the sea shore, strong winds can cause saltwater waves to spray onto the road. Saltwater is extremely bad for your vehicle.

General advice

A strong headwind will slow your vehicle down more quickly, and similarly, a strong tailwind will provide extra force pushing your vehicle forward as you try to brake.

Dangerous places for strong winds

Strong gusty wind can hit your vehicle as you come out of the lea (shelter) of a building or natural feature, in exposed places where there is not much vegetation to break up the wind (e.g. Harbour Bridge, agricultural plains, etc), and on motorway overpasses where wind can be funnelled by banks and vegetation.

High winds can affect high-sided vehicles on bridges

Cars

To a much lesser extent, high winds can blow cars off course. The taller the car’s profile, the more surface area that is exposed to the wind. Empty vans (light weight combined with large surface area) are most at risk of being significantly moved by the wind. The faster a car is going, the more it will be blown off course because it will have travelled further before the driver has time to react.

Motorbikes

The narrow track and high profile of a motorbike makes it unstable in a crosswind. Motorcyclists need to lean into the wind to counter the force moving them across the road, and when the wind abruptly stops, the leaning causes them to turn the opposite way. In a side wind, keep slightly more weight on the peg facing the wind, and grip the tank with your knees.

Another technique you can use is a ‘flapping knee’ technique where you stick your knee out on the side of the bike facing the wind (keep your foot on the footpeg). This acts kind of like a sail, increasing the wind resistance on one side of the bike, encouraging your bike to turn towards that side. If you keep your leg fairly loose, it will move around with the wind and will (kind of miraculously) adjust its angle with the luffing and turbulence to give you just about the right amount of wind resistance.

If you are familiar with ‘hanging off’ your bike, you can do this and keep the bike upright. This allows you to maintain balance without having any lean on the bike – your centre of gravity is kept slightly to the left or right of the bike’s centre of gravity.

In really strong winds you may have to walk with your bike.

Try to minimise your profile on the wind. While you should be riding in a position that gives you the most control over your bike, you can avoid carrying a backpack, and make sure that you strap any panniers and other luggage tight so that they don’t flap around. If you are riding headwind you can crouch down (which also lowers your centre of gravity), but don’t compromise your ability to control the bike in a side wind.

Close your visor and zip all your zippers closed. If you are being buffeted around, a slightly looser grip can help because buffeting can translate into unwanted steering inputs.

If you ride too slowly you will lose the gyroscopic effects of the wheels. However, you don’t want to ride too fast because if you are blown sideways you will travel further before you have time to react, and that means you could end up in another vehicle’s lane.

Slipstream

The buffeting effect of large trucks could be more in stronger winds. Give yourself more of a buffer when driving towards large vehicles, especially road trains which have much more mass.

Stormy and wet

If it is stormy and wet you need to pay attention to cattle grids and other areas where the road will be more slippery. While the bike has plenty of grip on normal tarmac, the reduced grip on metal surfaces could make the bike travel slightly sideways.

Traffic lights

If you have a high, heavy motorbike, be careful at traffic lights as you could be blown over. You may want to use a slightly different stopping technique, and it will completely depend on the situation. If you lean your bike slightly into the wind as you stop, then it will be slightly easier to get it moving again. However, this might also mean that you can’t keep your foot on the rear brake, and that’s not good if you are facing uphill because the front brake won’t have much weight on it to stop you rolling backwards.

Ultimately, it’s best to avoid riding in a really heavy wind, especially if it’s raining, too.

Heavy vehicles

Watch for strong headwinds when approaching a hill as they will affect your speed more quickly than just the gradient alone.

If you have a large trailer, a strong tail wind can push you along, meaning you’ll need slightly more braking distance.

When carrying bulk liquids or top-heavy items, pay attention to your cornering speed if you are cornering into a side wind. As your truck turns, you will not only have the centripetal forces making your vehicle want to tip over, but some added push from a side wind.

Keep loads low and central and try to plan routes that avoid exposed areas. If an area is exposed, slow down.

Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists

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Posted in Advice, Car, Heavy Vehicle, Motorbike
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