Tuesday, 29 March 2005

The Amazing Race 7, Episode 5

Vicente Casares (Argentina) - Johannesburg (South Africa) - Soweto (South Africa) - Gaborone (Botswana) - Francistown (Botswana) - Gweta (Botswana) - Makgadikgadi Pans (Botswana)

Road travel is the most dangerous part of most trips — whether a trip to the next town, across the country, or around the world.

Travellers occasionally, although rarely, get so ill (most often with malaria or drug-resistant dysentery) that they come home earlier than they had planned, but most of the time when something happens to one of my clients that forces them to cut short their trip, that “something” is a road accident. (Despite fears of travel-related illnesses and injuries, the most common reason to abort an extended overseas trip is an injury or illness affecting a family member back home, typically a parent, rather than anything that’s happened to the traveller.)

So it should be no surprise that the most serious injury that we’ve been shown to date in The Amazing Race was to one of the (usually invisible) camera operators accompanying the teams in the reality television race around the world, when one of the race teams’ truck (“sport utility vehicle”) rolled over on a dirt track in the desert in Botswana.

Sometimes the most effective way to teach a lesson is by negative example, and that’s definitely the case here. Both the producers of the television show, and the racers themselves, did pretty much everything possible to maximize the likelihood of exactly such a predictable “accident” as in fact occurred:

They were driving as fast as possible, in top-heavy rollover prone trucks, on the opposite side of the road from what they were accustomed to, off pavement, in the desert, in a remote area where help could have been a long time coming or a long way to reach on foot once their vehicle was disabled (if they were real travellers not accompanied by a television production crew and its support and medical staff), while poorly rested and still severely jet lagged after flying across five time zones.

That’s a great lesson in what not to do, if you don’t want to end up like them, wondering if their eagerness for a television hit (in the case of the producers) or a million-dollar prize (in the case of the racers) might have led them to risk their own or someone else’s life.

Don’t try to drive or do other dangerous tasks requiring uninterrupted concentration, clear thinking, and quick physical reactions when you are tired (such as from a long flight) or, more importantly, when your body and is at the low point in its daily cycle of alertness — as it may be, even in the middle of the day, if you are suffering from “jet lag”.

At home, if you had to wake up and start driving at 3 a.m., you’d probably realize that you weren’t at your peak, and as a result would (I hope) drive more slowly and with more care, if you drove at all.

But if, like the racers, you’ve just traveled from Argentina to South Africa, your body’s internal clock could think it’s the middle of the night when it’s the middle of the day where you are. It could take as much as a week for your body’s cycles to catch up with your own rapid flight around the planet, and the racers had only one 12-hour “pit stop” to try to rest between their intercontinental flights and their off-road race across the desert. In “The Amazing Race” around the world in a month, or course, much less in a trip around the world in eight days , your body clock might never catch up with your body until after you got back home.

Normal circadian rhythms reduce your alertness, reaction time, and ability at that hour of night (or, if you are jet lagged, day) as much as a fairly heavy dose of alcohol or other performance impairing drugs. You should pay at least as much attention to whether you are feeling “down” from jet lag as you would to whether you’ve been drinking too heavily. If you are feeling jet lagged, you should avoid driving and other suchlike activities as much as you would if you were feeling more than a little drunk or drugged.

Most so-called jet lag “remedies” are pure quackery, so far as I can tell. The most important thing you can do about jet lag is not to try to eliminate or “conquer” or “cure” it (that would require some means of resetting your body’s internal clock or alertness cycle), but (1) to recognize when your mental and physical functioning, alertness, and reaction time are impaired by jet lag, and, (2) to act on that recognition by avoiding or postponing activities like driving or, if they are unavoidable, minimizing them and taking extra care (such as by going more slowly than you otherwise might).

For more on jet lag, see Wide Awake at 3:00 a.m. , by Richard M. Coleman, which in my humble opinion is the best book available for understanding and dealing with jet lag.

Special care, concentration, and quick reactions are also required when you are driving on the opposite side of the road than what you are accustomed to, especially if you’ve never driven on the “wrong” side of the road before. The worst time to learn to drive on the other side is when you have just gotten off a long, tiring flight from another time zone — which, of course, is exactly when most people do attempt it, whether arriving in South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, or Japan (among places where they drive on the left) from the Americas (where, with a few small exceptions, they drive on the right), or in the opposite case when arriving in America from any of those drive-on-the-left places and immediately driving off in a rental car to explore the great American road. In either case, do yourself a favor: get a hotel at the airport, or reachable by public transportation, and give yourself a few days to rest and for your body clock to catch up before you try driving (in a parking lot for practice, please) on the “wrong” side for the first time.

The racers aren’t just given cars, or required to drive them on paved roads (and on the opposite side). They are given SUV’s, and required to race them on unpaved desert tracks. Former soldier Ron claims that he’s the only one of the racers to have previous experience in high speed off-pavement Humvee driving in the desert. He’s probably right — several of the other racers speak openly of their inexperience at such driving — and experience does make a difference.

The fact that local people do something all the time doesn’t mean (as travellers sometimes falsely infer) that it’s safe for them, for you, or for anyone else. But the fact that they do it all the time, and you don’t, means that they are likely to be much more skilled at it than you are, and that you should take proportionately greater care than you see them exercising, and go more slowly.

Even on pavement, SUV driving requires special skill. Boosters of “SUV’s” (Exactly what sort of “sport” is it to drive such a truck in city or suburban traffic? And exactly what “utility” do they have for the paved highway driving for which most of them are used?) admit in their current joint ad campaign that, “SUV’s handle like trucks, not cars” and recommend that, to reduce rollover accidents, SUV drivers should “Slow down and avoid abrupt maneuvers”. In their own words, “SUV’s require special handling. Riding an SUV travelling at high speeds is dangerous. 40% of fatal rollovers involve excessive speed.”

And that’s on pavement! SUV advertising gives the impression that driving an SUV on a dirt track, or even across roadless country (especially flat desert, a common setting for SUV ads), is just like driving a car on pavement. But it’s not. Driving safely on dirt or sand is at least as much about technique and practice as it is about the vehicle.

Some of the smallest cars, such as the Volkswagen Beetle and the Citroën 2CV, have been preferred off-road vehicles successfully used for decades in some of the world’s worst conditions. Among other things, they have the advantage over “modern” SUV’s that, being smaller and lighter, they are much easier to lift over or out of obstacles. Not for nothing was The People’s Guide to Mexico (now published by Avalon Travel Publishing, the same people who publish my Practical Nomad books) the second book published by John Muir after his own “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive”.

I’ve driven and ridden hundreds of miles — slowly and carefully — on dirt and other unpaved roads in a variety of “subcompact”, low-clearance, small-tired cars, most recently en route to and from Alaska in a narrow-tired gas-electric hybrid Toyota Prius optimized for fuel efficiency rather than off-road performance. Given the choice of a riding in an off-road rally with a novice off-road driver in a truck or SUV, or an experienced off-road driver like my friend Russell in the battered and beloved little Beetle in which he lived while exploring the desert Southwestern USA , I’d choose the latter without hesitation. (Not that Russell can’t drive trucks too, mind you.)

The racers and their crews, of course, had people watching (and filming them), and medical support and backup transportation standing by — even in the African bush. That won’t be true for you, and neither health nor medical evacuation insurance are likely to reduce the amount of time it takes the first responder to arrive if you are injured while travelling in such a place. But if you want to be sure you would be able to return home for any follow-up treatment (reconstructive surgery, rehabilitation, etc.) once your condition has been stabilized, rather than having it locally wherever you end up after getting hurt, you might consider medical evacuation insurance or a prepaid medevac program like those offered by Medjet Assistance .

CBS describes what happened to Greg, Brian, and the passengers in their race vehicle as an “accident”, but in reality (as opposed to reality-TV), it was an entirely predictable consequence of the danger-maximizing set of choices imposed on the racers by the producers. The racers, presumably, had to sign waivers of liability assuming the risks of the race, but one wonders if that was also true of the camera and sound technicians accompanying them, whose lives were placed equally in danger but without the lure of a million-dollar prize.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 29 March 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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