Driving school

When roads become rivers: Creating a Plan B can keep people from driving through floodwaters

• Recent KZN floods have recently severely affected the region.
• This article is based on studies done in Australia, but there are key points we could learn from in South Africa.
• Many South Africans are forced to drive on flooded roads because there is no alternative.
• Always having a ‘Plan B’ might help in this situation.


Amy Peden, UNSW Sydney; Andrew Gising, Macquarie Universityand Kyra Hamilton, Griffith University

Queenslanders are facing another arduous cleanup after flooding inundated roads and towns in early May.

In the current La Niña period, from November 2021 to present, at least 41 people have died (including three missing presumed dead) from floods in southeast Queensland, northern New South Wales , Greater Sydney and Victoria. Many involved the decision to enter floodwaters, often in vehicles.

READ | KZN floods: 2 eThekwini workers presumed drowned after their car was swept away

Indeed, driving through floodwaters is the leading cause of flood-related deaths. Despite media campaigns – such as Queensland’s “If it’s flooded, forget it” adverts – people continue to enter the unpredictable water, risking their lives and those of their rescuers.

Our research exploring why people drive and avoid driving in floodwaters has provided comprehensive insights into this behavior. Having a plan B could be the difference between life and death in these situations.

Cars drive along a flooded bridge in KwaNdengezi.

Why people drive on flooded roads

We interviewed people who had previously driven through floodwaters for our research. We found that many drivers recognize the dangers associated with entering floodwaters, although many identify circumstances in which they believe it is safe to do so.

But only a small error in judgment can result in tragedy. Water can flow faster than expected, rise quickly, and roads can be washed out, but not visible under murky floodwaters. In fact, water can move fast enough to strip asphalt from roads and damage bridges.

A small car can float in only 15 centimeters of flood water. Record flooding in Lismore earlier this year saw flood waters peak at 14.4 metres, higher than the town’s levees. Dangerous flooding can occur even during minor floods and has become widespread in recent months.

READ | How to Navigate Safely During Flash Floods

We learned that many of the reasons people choose to drive through flood waters are based on the pressure they feel. Pressure to get to work, school, or home with family or pets. Passenger pressure in the vehicle. Or the pressure of other motorists on the road.

As one respondent put it:

I saw, this is going to sound dreadful, I saw signs that the road was closed. But there were cars, 4x4s coming towards me

I thought ‘oh I should turn around, I should turn back’. But I was freaking out about being late for work […] And when I saw the four-wheel drive coming my way, I thought, ‘Okay, I can do this.

Another said:

It was mostly pressure […] to get there and give a talk. The silly thing is once I’ve succeeded [the floodwater]people said [my workplace] was off and totally flooded in there and they were canceling the conference anyway.

What we found

Our 2021 research was conducted with the State Emergency Service in Newcastle, New South Wales – an area prone to regular flooding. It has shown promising results for developing plans with “if/then” scenarios in place. In other words if you had to be in a particular scenario where a danger was to arise, then What would you do?

Making alternate plans can prevent drivers from being faced with a situation where they feel they must drive through flood waters. We experimentally tested if/then plans in Newcastle using two scenarios:

  1. you have a trip planned but receive a potential moderate or major flood warning in Newcastle before you start driving

  2. you approach a flooded section of road and other cars push you through the flood waters.

For Scenario 1, an example of an if/then plan was: “If it’s time to leave work and I receive an alert for a moderate or major flood, I will stay at work until I can continue in safe.”

For Scenario 2, an example of an if/then plan was: “If the cars behind me push me through floodwaters, then I will activate my hazards and let them pass, then turn back.”

After an exercise exploring these scenarios with survey respondents, people said they were more willing to stay put until the threat passed for Scenario 1, and less willing to drive through floodwaters afterwards. having felt the pressure of other drivers for scenario 2.

KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala visits

KwaZulu-Natal Prime Minister Sihle Zikalala visited areas of Durban affected by heavy rains and flooding.

Form your own plan B

Our results show the importance of having a detailed if/then plan – a Plan B – for specific scenarios, as it can reduce your chances of engaging in risky and potentially deadly driving during floods.

Your Plan B examples may include:

  • pick up children early from school or daycare

  • allow workers to leave earlier if flooding is forecast or to work from home

  • know alternate routes if your planned route is flooded

  • prepare to engage in safe alternative behaviors, despite pressure to drive.

Reinforcing your plan B is essential to its success in the face of the need to make a quick decision in the moment.

We encourage people to formulate their plans for multiple scenarios, put those plans in writing, and review them regularly by posting them on the fridge and in the car.

It’s also a good idea to verbally communicate your plan to other important people, such as friends, family, co-workers, and employers, as an extra layer of intention to solidify your plan in case something goes wrong. flood.

As Queensland grapples with another flood crisis and La Niña is expected to last through May, and potentially into winter, more extreme rainfall and flooded roads are to be expected.

Developing your plan B now could help you make safer decisions, should the worst happen.The conversation

Amy Peden, Research Fellow, UNSW Sydney; Andrew Gissing, Managing Director, Risk Frontiers, Associate Researcher, Macquarie Universityand Kyra Hamilton, Associate Professor, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.