Tentative at Tooleybuc

In the course of doing my studies at the Centre for Leadership and Learning in Risk (CLLR), I often drive over to Canberra to attend. It gives me time to chill out, even though it is an extremely long drive of 12-16 hours depending on the conditions. I love driving with my favourite music blaring or sneaky readings through audiobook I have been meaning to catch up on. I enjoy the autonomy and the freedom the open road, I am an experienced driver and do not find this a challenge, but actually rather relaxing. The Hay plain can rapidly roll on by when Big Country, Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons or Midnight Oil are keeping you company!

It is on one of these trips that I learned a valuable lesson about ‘social contract’. Of all places this happened at Tooleybuc. Tooleybuc is a cute little town where one crosses the Murray from Victoria to New South Wales. Tooleybuc is a sleepy little town with a population of 300 joined one either side by a single lane bride. If you are driving from Adelaide to Canberra, then the Tooleybuc way to Balranald is the most direct. The single lane bridge is made of beautiful wooden sleepers that form the floor of the bridge and it has a centre raising platform to let Paddle Steamers of old pass under. The Tooleybuc Bridge is heritage listed like several bridges in NSW (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historic_bridges_of_New_South_Wales) and records the ingenuity and history of pioneers who got the job done on a modest budget. On our first semiotic walk at Tharwa I came across my second experience with such a bridge.

When you get to Tooleybuc and want to cross, this is what you see:


Nowhere in my 30 years experience of driving or basic driving lessons was I taught how to handle this encounter. Previous to my trips to Canberra I had never been across a bridge like this. And when I first got there, other cars were on the other side also wanting to cross.

There were no signs at the bridge to tell me the convention or procedure of how to cross. There was no checklist to dumb me down in how to encounter a tussle with another driver at Tooleybuc, how on earth was I going to cross safely? They must have accidents all the time at Tooleybuc? Surely, this must be knocked down and a double lane bridge be installed? No, everyone at Tooleybuc survives just fine with a very simple ‘social contract’ we all learn from being a child. It’s called ‘first in best dressed’ or ‘courtesy courts kindness’. This is what all humans do when there are no rules and no checklists. We engage with the other person with eye contact or by temperament and make a decision. Half to time we make decisions at work this is what we do too. We don’t pull out a checklist we did 3 hours ago to work out how to live and work with other people. This is the nature of the ‘social contract’.

Social contracts are not written but ‘understood’. A social contract is an ethical way of engaging others (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/social-contract-theory) It’s as simple as how we pass others in the hall way if their hands are full of packages. It’s how we wait for access to the washroom or juggle our place for a car park. A social contract exists through respect, empathy, trust and fairness. Nothing we do by social contract can be measured yet every social contract we enact is critical for living in community with others.

What would have happened at Tooleybuc if I had broken the social contract? How is the social contract known? Where is it written? Even in the social contract we know that tolerance prevails. Maybe the other person has never been on such a bridge before? The locals know and such behaviour is evidenced by hesitancy and anxiety that is easily recognised. When I ‘took my turn’ and crossed over I found out another social contract too, one waves ‘G’day as you pass on the other side, in recognition of the social contract.

Too often we seek to dumb down living safely with others through checklists and procedure paperwork when in reality, a huge percentage of what we do in risk and safety is undertaken through social contract. We keep perfectly safe with no paperwork through the fundamentals of trust, empathy, observation, respect and fairness. Even those who breach a social contract learn intuitively what happens when a social contract is breached. The power of belonging and in-groupness is a hundred times more effective than any penalty. This is how humans learn.

So even if you breach the social contract at Tooleybuc, you better learn quickly how to reverse and back up, otherwise nothing moves.

Matt Thorne

Matt Thorne

Executive Director at Risk Diversity
Risk Diversity coaches and mentors Companies and People to understand Leadership, Culture and Risk, helping them to humanise and harmonise their systems.
Matt Thorne

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22 Replies to “Tentative at Tooleybuc”

  1. What a beautiful little town is Tooleybuc, great pub and coffee, worth the stop. Most of my rellies are in Adelaide so this bridge has been a process a few fines a year since 1982.
    When one understands any social contract life’s challenges are just plain normal. No probs, just get on with living. We do the Tharwa bridge at least 20 times a year, it’s fun.
    Unfortunately Safety Killjoys have killed off fun, but they are wrong – Risk Makes Sense. There is nothing more stupid and nonsensical than zero.
    Thanks for the post Matt!

  2. Great read and great context; I see exactly the same in suburban Sydney when travelling down narrow roads with cars parked both sides. A quick flash of the lights (I know its probably illegal!!) but everyone just gets on with it.

    1. Richard, its simple how humans innovate and manage things quite simply when not dumbed down by checklists. I forget about Sydney streets, quite common now and OMG imagine being safer by breaking the law.

  3. I have returned from a holiday in the UK and a week on a narrow boat on the Llangollen Canal, the unwritten social contract was in full evidence. First boat to the tunnel entrance enters if not you wait patiently; waiting to use the lock? why not help out by operating a winch. Travelling on very narrow one car width roads in North Wales always keeping an eye on the closest passing point, stop squeeze in and a wave to say thanks. Is there a sign to say give way, or traffic lights at the tunnel entrance? no, courtesy and good manners is all you need. Thanks Matt for reminding us of the many informal courtesies we follow.

    1. Hi Peter, I saw that picture of the Canal on your facebook post. I wonder if the tranquility of water helps with patience while waiting?

  4. It’s unfortunate but true that there are many people who can navigate a bridge like this with no problems but as soon as they get into a work environment, they will do nothing unless it is expressly written and communicated on how, when and why. I am not talking about safety people, but the average worker. Maybe over the years we have punished people so readily for infringements against the “rules” that people are now just gun shy at work.

    But these days we also live in a multi-cultural society where social norms and ethics can vary depending on the environment and society one was brought up in. For example, people from certain countries have no sense of queuing up. Others may have been brought up in a competitive environment where might is right. There are many people who need rules for every aspect of their lives and then there are some people who are just arseholes.

    It’s nice that there are still bridges like this about the place and it’s nice that there is a social contract in play. But it’s not like this bridge is in a metropolis where it would have the volume of traffic. Could you imagine navigating the Sydney Harbour Bridge based only on a “social contract”? Alas, humans have not quite evolved enough for that.

    1. Interestingly Mick the best courtesy on the roads I have ever experienced in Australia is in the big cities, in my own city where the roads are amazing and there is little traffic, no-one will let you in or show any understanding towards the needs of another. The social contract is a critical part of culture, unfortunately never considered in any definition I have ever seen in safety.

      1. I believe that social contract/ethics etc should be taught in schools properly. Religious studies absolutely does not count as religious studies is based on fairytales and is about dogma and why everyone is going to hell. Social etiquette, ethics, etc are indeed the cornerstone of a civilised society.

        1. From my engagement in schools lots of this is being taught, most teachers are pretty good on the basics of compassion, social values, respect etc. I have no idea what religious studies has to do with any of this?

        1. I think country people are good in a crisis as was demonstrated during the Canberra bush fires but the road culture is something special. I think sometimes when the roads are so good it discounts any need for empathy.

  5. Great article. Took me back to NZ where single lane bridges, many shared with the railway and besides other motorists you needed to be aware of trains in both directions and who had priority in that social contract. I recall one time we had started to cross one of these shared bridges, Dad driving, all of a sudden there was the sound of the railcar horn behind us….dad nearly drove over the side of the bridge, everyone in the car screamed, turned out a local with a railcar type horn fitted to their car was behind us. Memorable.

  6. I received this from PNG earlier today and have travelled over this bridge many times at Henganoffi near Bena Bena on the outskirts of Goroka in the Eastern Highlands of PNG.

    I expect some vigilant safety evangelist will be commenting about fall protection and working at heights.

  7. This is the only access road between Goroka, Kainantu and Lae and I can just imagine the ensuing chaos and opportunities it has created along the Okuk Highway, especially around Waterais, Yonki and Barola.

  8. PS. The blue checked shirt on the ground is an impromptu collection plate for donations to locals, who will assist with transporting essential cargo across the river.

  9. I wonder how autonomous vehicles will negotiate single lane bridges. Indeed, the impending review of NHV legislation has a sinister trajectory, which will merely sanction the use of autonomous trucks across Australia and not secure the health and safety of other drivers and road users.

    In the current free market neoliberal climate creative destruction will ensure the emergence of autonomous vehicles on public roads proceeds apace. This will be accelerated by substantial reductions in labour costs and other overheads with burgeoning profit margins. Preliminary vehicles will be semiautonomous using indentured servants or peons with limited driving experience until the technology improves. Meanwhile any dead motorists or pedestrians will become a cost of doing business and
    categorised as collateral damage.

    Within two years driverless trucks with a computer at the wheel will be rolling unaccompanied along US interstate highways. The Trump administration has already announced its intention via the US Department of Transportation, which proclaims it will no longer assume a commercial truck is driven by a human being. It will amend legal definitions accordingly and the term automated system will encompass truck drivers or operators.

    Since 2017 hauliers such as Embark and TuSimple have made regular semi-autonomous freight deliveries along Interstate 10 between El Paso in Texas and Palm Springs in California. A computer accompanied by a support driver takes control of the trucks on the freeway. Several freight companies have successfully experimented with platooning, which involves a principal driver leading a convoy of computer controlled trucks. It reduces drag and saves fuel with an enormous potential to slash the cost of long haul freight and increase profits.

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