Emeritus Professor Peter Joubert

Key advocate for mandatory seat belts, distinguished fluid mechanics researcher and leading figure within the Australian yachting community, Emeritus Professor Peter Joubert reflects on his career.

He spoke with Professor Len Stevens, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering from 1980–87, 150th Anniversary Manager Khandis Marinko and Carolyn Rassmussen, author of Increasing Momentum.

Papua New Guinea. 1945. The height of the war in the Pacific. Peter Joubert was hanging by his straps from his stricken Tiger Moth, its wheels tangled in thick Kunai grass after a troubled landing. It was a powerful lesson in the life-saving value of a seatbelt; one he would never forget.

I landed a fraction short and the plane slowly tipped over … crunch.

I’m hanging in my straps with my head about a foot from the ground, and I would have poled my head into the ground. I would have been a quadriplegic.

The experience led Prof Joubert into becoming a tireless campaigner for mandatory seatbelts in vehicles, as well as yacht safety harnesses, which saw him receive a medal in the Order of Australia for his efforts in 1996. He would also go on develop a wind tunnel at the University of Melbourne and be the only “amateur yacht designer to design a Sydney to Hobart overall winner. He would also compete in 27 of the grueling 628 nautical mile races.

Professor Joubert was born in Manly on Sydney’s north shore in 1924. His father was a shipping engineer. His love of boating started from a young age, when he sailed in Vaucluse Juniors and went boat trips with his family on the harbour. He tested well at school and was soon transferred to Woollahra Special School for bright children. Further tests at Sydney Boys’ High indicated he would be a good candidate for an engineering career. So he embarked on a mechanical engineering apprenticeship at the Australian General Electric Company.

As he reached the age of 18, Peter was keen to join his friends who had signed up for the forces. But being in a “protected industry, he was initially not allowed to leave his apprenticeship and sign up. However Peter was determined to join the war effort, so he took his case to the Commissioner for Apprenticeships and was eventually allowed to leave.

I was lucky enough to be selected to be a pilot and I went off to Temora in New South Wales where we flew Tiger Moths.

The war was a tough experience. Apart from his near miss in the Tiger Moth, Prof Joubert had to endure some harsh conditions, with many colleagues succumbing to dysentery, as well as some rather troublesome wildlife.

There were millipedes that used to crawl out of the jungle and they’d climb up into your bed. They’re all black with hordes of legs and if you touched them they squirted acid.

When the war ended, Prof Joubert benefitted from a training scheme that allowed him to finish his matriculation and then undertake engineering at Sydney University. He then worked on a radio-controlled glider at Sydney University, before he was approached to be a lecturer and to supervise the building and operation of a new wind tunnel at The University of Melbourne.

I was not really interested but I agreed, he said.

Eventually the wind tunnel was finished and I got some students together circa 1961–62 and we were running tests in the tunnel. He said that research from the wind tunnel was subsequently published in The Journal of Fluid Mechanics, the discipline’s top journal, published out of Cambridge.

It was in the early 60s that Prof Joubert started advocating for mandatory wearing of seat belts. He took it to the state council of the Liberal and Country Party where a motion was passed to get belts in the front seats and anchorage fittings for seatbelts in all new cars.

Then the parliament of Victoria set up a standing all party committee to look at road accidents. An appalling number of people were being killed and injured. It was just horrific. And they approached the Faculty of Engineering for help.

They were looking at whether compulsory inspections would have an effect on road accidents — to make sure the vehicles had good brakes and tyres and could steer.

I said that wouldn’t have much effect. The best thing you could do if you want to reduce accidents is look at bringing in compulsory wearing of seatbelts.

So there I am again in Parliament talking to this all-party committee. I was on my favourite hobby horse!

Meanwhile, newspaper articles were pressuring for government action on the shocking road toll. Action finally happened in 1970, after the former Deputy Premier (and University of Melbourne alumnus) Arthur Rylah was taken on a tour of the quadriplegic ward of the Austin hospital. When he asked how many of the seriously injured patients would have been there had they been wearing seat belts, he was advised “none.

And so Rylah said, “all right, we’ll bring the law in, Prof Joubert said.

Then a year later, New South Wales adopted it and it spread around Australia and it around the world.

And that’s saved God knows how many lives and injuries.

Meanwhile, Prof Joubert’s love of yachting and boat designing continued, as he participated in Sydney to Hobart Yacht races and designed the 1981 winner, Zeus II. He was also a keen boat-builder, with one of his most famous creations causing quite a stir in his neighbourhood.

Prof Joubert was working on a 30-foot yacht in his own backyard, which at the time was next to a vacant lot.

I thought we’ll just pull the fence down and take it out through the block. But it took that long.

In the meantime, the people who owned the block came and put a house on it!

I thought about getting a helicopter to lift it out.

And then I got an even better idea. I got all the final year students and I hired some scaffolding. We built a scaffold at either end of the boat and we had some chain blocks and we lifted the boat up in the air.

Prof Joubert said that with the help of the scaffolding, the hardy students were then able to slide the boat up over the top of his house and into the front yard, a feat which no doubt gave the neighbours something to talk about for many years to come.

Peter Joubert Fact File

  • Regarded as a key instigator for the mandatory seatbelt legislation of 1970.
  • In the year before the new law, 1061 people died on the state’s roads. The following year, the toll was 923.
  • He designed Zeus II, a Currawong 31, which was overall winner of the 1981 Sydney Hobart, as well as other yachts that have won their divisions.
  • More than a hundred yachts have been built to his designs.
  • In 1993 he was awarded the Commodore’s medal of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia for outstanding seamanship after his crew rescued eight survivors from a sunken yacht at night in a strong gale.
  • He survived the Sydney Hobart storm of 1998, despite his yacht having been turned upside down before righting.
  • Prof Joubert’s received the AO in 1996 for “services to engineering through research in the field of fluid mechanics, particularly in relation to submarine design and education.
  • He received a medal in the Order of Australia in 1996 for his contributions on road and yacht safety.
  • Peter Joubert retired in 1989 but has continued his research as an Emeritus Professor at the University. His recent work includes the study of separating flow about a submarine body while engaged in a turning manoeuvre.

The Melbourne School of Engineering thanks Professor Joubert for his long-lasting contribution to engineering and his support of the School.

Emeritus Professor Peter Joubert