The importance of roll cages

It is said that to drive a Land Rover Defender safely you should imagine that you are driving a soft-top; that is to say that the aluminium body construction doesn't provide much strength should you find the vehicle inverted and the weight of the chassis/engine/axles hovering above you. The durable appearance of Defenders midleads us into believing that they are a safe vehicle. A roll cage is an expensive purchase but, as I have found out, is a necessity for vehicles working on bad roads in remote places for an extended length of time.

Rolling a Defender is pretty easy, particularly for an unfamilier driver. The British Army in Belize had 19 rollovers during a 6 week training deployment, attributing it to squaddies driving too fast on unsealed roads. Salisbury Plain is the best place in the UK to prepare you for driving gravelly roads, but factor in long hours, in dusty heat, with deep drainage ditches, potholes and lorries barrelling round blind corners and the reality can throw you into a world you are not prepared for. The NAS Defenders sold in North America all had roll cages, as the authorities deemed the vehicle unsafe without them!

Scenarios of roll overs

Driving too fast for the conditions or cornering tightly - Defenders aren't race cars and the high centre of gravity can lead this to happen:

Driving extreme terrain - If you try to drive difficult terrain then there is a high chance that the vehicle could become unbalanced and over it goes. In this video is so nearly happened, but the driver was lucky:

Bad luck - Sometimes accidents happen and it's no fault of your own. An unexpected breakage forced you from the road or another vehicle causes you to swerve. This video is quite harrowing at how quickly an innocuous activity such as climbing a grassy field can go wrong.

I have my own examples of roll overs. I shall start with this one:

My story

All of the organisations I have worked for overseas have numerous accidents littering their history, where mostly it was a volunteer who had limited experience of Land Rovers in off road situations. Familiarisation was given and strict rules were enforced but combining lack of skills with a vehicle that is tall and has poor handling at speed - you get a real risk. Therefore most of the Defenders I have used overseas have had roll cages, fitted by exporters such as Conrico to ROW spec vehicles as an optional upgrade. They were always chosen despite the high cost.

Many others feel the same way and fit roll cages. I will also fit a roll cage to my Defender for a long-term overland expedition. This is why:

I was sat on the side of a dusty track with the group of people I had spent the last 40 days with in the jungles of Belize. We were waiting for my colleague to deliver a member of our group who had been taken out for medical treatment. The time rolled on and as 90 minutes beyond the designated meeting time passed, my mind started to wander as she was normally very punctual.

A few minutes later, she walked around the corner with the volunteer, sporting a cut on her eyebrow. She didn't say anything and just held up her camera showing the photo above. I could only hug her.

As it was now the afternoon, the group decided not to continue trekking that day. I separated from them and walked back with her to the wreckage to make a plan. After 5km in the hot sun, we arrived.

The Defender was 30ft down the side of the mountain resting against a tree. It had only rolled onto its side and then roof, but the steepness meant it was already a long way from the road. She had driven to avoid the wheels going into a drainage ditch and had gotten too close to the edge. The outer wheels brushed some undergrowth, but there was nothing beneath them, so over it went, something like this video. She was only driving about 30kmh so explained that it had happened in super slow motion.

I had to grab clumps of foliage to control myself descending to the vehicle. It's very surreal seeing the underneath looking towards the sky. I pushed down on the rear door handle, opened the door the wrong way and went inside to retrieve anything useful, such as water and a radio. I found walking on the roof and stepping over the roll cage bars to be very surreal.

We radioed our fieldbase who told us our mechanic would shortly be arriving with two vehicles. I'd never heard him swear before but as soon as he arrived and saw the Defender he said "fucking hell" and gave my colleague a hug. He lamented the fact that he'd installed nice new brake lines two days beforehand and they were now looking skyward. To say we were faced with a difficult challenge was an understatement, but our mechanic seemed to have a plan. Shortly afterwards, a British Army soldier passed by on his quad bike and offered any support, as there was an exercise operating in the area. He said the "REME boys could bring the 6x6 HIAB and pluck it out". The mechanic declined, such was his confidence.

I set about removing all the personal items from the vehicle and the mechanic's assistant jumped on the top (the underside) to remove the front propshaft, which was to be donated to our other Defender currently sat in his workshop. I removed the last few items with the rear door behind me and organised them to carry up to the road.

Then I heard what I can only describe as the noise in Jurassic Park when the vehicle gets pushed over the edge by the T-rex. I turned to see the Defender sliding away from me, turning downhill, as they mechanic's assistant was flung from the vehicle over the far side. I ran over and he had landed badly on his knee, which had then wrapped around a rope and was pulled along by the vehicle - he was in a lot of pain. The mechanic and I helped him to the top; not easy on the steep slope when he is several stone heavier than me. Luckily it wasn't serious, but he took some painkillers and rested from then on.

The vehicle was now further down the slope, facing downhill and on its left hand side. It had been lying across the slope, slid downhill to the right then fallen to the left. It had come to rest against a fallen tree which the front left wheel had dug into. It was now easier to right the Defender, but it was further away. We made a plan:

  1. Rope it up to secure it
  2. Chainsaw the tree that it was resting against, which was now in the way
  3. Tip it onto its wheels
  4. Winch it backwards up to the road

We tied the Defender to several nearby trees to prevent it slipping further and set about using a hand winch from a perpendicular tree to the roofrack. Slowly it ratcheted over until it was back on its wheels. It jerked forward slightly as the fallen tree took its full, rolling weight. We then attached a winch cable to the vehicle and tried to pull it to the road. Understandably, the power required was immense and the winching vehicle slowly dragged itself to the edge rather than pulling up the stricken Defender. The winching vehicle was then tied to another vehicle but with the extra weight the winch proved that it didn't have the strength to pull Defender up the steep slope.

It was already mid afternoon when we had started and it was now starting to get dark, so it was called a day. The mechanic and my colleague headed back to town and I walked back to my group illuminated by starlight. When I arrived the team had already set up their hammocks and gone to bed. I laid my rollmat by the fire and slept quickly after the emotional and physically demanding day. (It's not typically a good idea to sleep by a fire as snakes seek out the warmth during the night). That night I ended up running to the toilet several times, but that's enough of that...

The following day whilst I continued trekking with stomach cramps, the mechanic enlisted a tractor and eventually got the Defender back to the road, where it was trailered back to town.

The aftermath

The Defender was surprisingly driveable afterwards. None of the fluids really leaked out as I expected they would have, but it was clearly apparant externally that something bad had happened:

  • The windscreen was smashed and had a small hole on the passenger side
  • Some dirt had lodged between the front right tyre and the rim. I had it reseated to remove the chance of the tyre loosing air or coming off the rim
  • The bonnet didn't shut properly and the wheel on the bonnet was skewed
  • The roof rack was totally crushed
  • The rear quarter side was totally bashed in where it had first landed on a rock, smashing one of the rear windows
  • The front left wing was badly crushed

Why was the roll cage important

The fact that it was such a slow speed meant it didn't seem like the roll cage made much difference, until this was pointed out to me.

Do you see it? Aside from it being a photo of me posing for the camera, it is quite subtle. Take a look at the roof above the right hand (passenger) side.

The roll cage bar is slightly bent and you might not be able to see but underneath there is a groove in the roof is due to the roll cage being compressed against it when it to took the full force of the impact. Look how far the bar deformed! It has since sprung back owing to the strength of the steel. Imagine the force required to do that and imagine what would have happended to the cast aluminium if there was no roll cage. I suspect the whole cabin might have collapsed with consequences I wouldn't think about.

Amongst all the images of smashed up Defenders from high speed accidents, that single photo of what can happen in a low speed roll is enough to prove to me the value of a roll cage.

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