Safe Driving on Gravel Roads
Many licensed drivers have never driven on gravel roads or are inexperienced and unprepared for the unique challenges when doing so.
This inexperience and lack of safety awareness result in too many fatal crashes and injuries on gravel roads in our rural areas.
We must equip ourselves with the knowledge and skills required to adjust our driving behaviour when moving away from tarred roads to gravel roads.
What is a Gravel Road?
To consider safe driving techniques on gravel roads we need to start with a better understanding of the nature of gravel roads. Gravel is a small, broken-down rock material. It can be obtained from a number of sources, such as rubble from a quarry, or from naturally occurring deposits in the earth. Particle size is generally no bigger than 2 cm in diameter. It is used as a base material in the construction of roads, buildings and other structures. On less trafficked roads, it is not viable to seal the road with bitumen, concrete or other materials, so the road is left with a gravel surface.
We need to keep in mind that not all gravel roads are the same. You can safely go much faster on a gravel road that has much of the loose particles swept off it and is wide, flat, hard and smooth than you can on a bumpy track with plenty of marble-like rocks comprising its surface. A driver has to remain focused at all times on the specific road surface he is driving on.
Challenges to Safe Driving on Gravel Roads
Many drivers encounter problems when they leave a paved surface for a gravel one. Gravel roads present their own unique challenges to safe driving and should be approached with caution each and every time the driver encounters one! If a driver is not aware of these challenges and how to address them he/ she will have a formula for trouble.
The Environment and Unique Roadside Challenges
When travelling on gravel roads in rural areas and farm country it is not only the road surface you need to be aware of. You are more likely to encounter broken fences next to the gravel roads as well as wildlife and livestock such as cattle and sheep on the roads.
You can expect to share the roads with a variety of other unique road users such as tractors, grain trucks, quad bikes, cyclists etc.
Most gravel roads are narrow but still accommodate two-way traffic, without the aid of a centre line. Some have a soft, sloping shoulder – or none at all.
Photo by: Denese Lups
The unpredictability of the road surface
Construction materials, weather, traffic volumes, and vehicle weights can change the condition of a gravel road very quickly. The road you travel tonight may not be the same as the road you travelled in the morning…
Visibility and Dust
Visibility can be an issue due to the dust clouds kicked up by your vehicle, by those travelling ahead or even from the farming activities next to the roads. Dust will impede your visibility significantly. It is however not only the dust but also the loose gravel and pebbles that poses a risk. Flying stones are a hazard to be aware of, especially if you don’t want to lose a headlight or windshield.
Weather Conditions and Rain
Rain plus gravel equals mud. Mud is like gravel, except much more slippery. The mud you have to be most cautious of is the fine layer of mud that can form on the surface of the road during rain. This mud works as a lubricant between the tyres of your car and the hard surface of the road underneath. If the rain is really heavy, it may just turn the road into a soft muddy surface that could easily entrap you.
Increased risk of roll-over
If a vehicle drifts too far to the side and the tyres go off the packed surface a roll-over can easily result from driving off the gravel surface.
Safe Driving Techniques on Gravel Roads
What are the best safe driving suggestions to follow when driving on a gravel road?
Control your speed:
High speed and quick manoeuvers on gravel roads are ingredients for disaster. Even really well-maintained gravel roads tend to have rough sections and loose gravel that require lower speeds – Most accidents can be prevented simply by slowing down.
Your vehicle will handle differently when it moves from one surface to another. The gravel may be loose or it may be hard-packed; you want to know how your vehicle handles before you speed up. By slowing down you will make cornering safer, and braking distances will be reduced.
Accelerate and brake slowly and reduce your speed when approaching intersections, curves and hills. Always drive at a speed that allows you to stop easily for any hazard. Be considerate as well! As you approach other vehicles, slow down and move over to the side so you can pass each other safely.
Stay in tracks:
When you’re driving on gravel, it’s generally a good idea to drive in existing tyre tracks worked into the gravel even if there’s only one set of tracks in the centre of the road. If you’re climbing a hill or see a vehicle coming in the opposite direction be prepared to slow down and pull over to the side.
Maintain effective following distance.
Even if the visibility is good and the road is hard-packed, stay at least six seconds behind other vehicles and allow enough time and space. This reduces the danger from a cloud of dust obscuring vision or flying rocks damaging headlights and windshields. Increase this distance when conditions are less than perfect and rain or dust reduces your visibility.
Be ready for skids.
A vehicle can become difficult to handle in heavy gravel and may skid. If you begin to skid, remain calm. Take your foot off the gas or brake, look where you want to go and steer in that direction. Resume driving at a lower speed.
Know your tyres and be aware of reduced traction
Less traction means less control. The major difference between driving on gravel and driving on a sealed surface is that there is much less grip on gravel. This is because gravel is a loose surface. The wheels have a greater tendency to slip, which affects the driver's control of the vehicle. In real terms, this means that safe cornering speeds are reduced, and braking distances are increased.
The single most important variable (vehicle-wise) is the tyres. The most effective tyres on gravel are those with a chunky tread pattern, similar to what is found on an off-road vehicle. The large tread helps to clear away the looser gravel particles and grip on the harder, more stable parts of the road. Wider tyres are more effective than thinner tyres since grip increases with the area of the contact patch of the tyres.
It is important to drive “smoothly”. Due to the lower amount of grip on gravel, a car can respond unexpectedly to sudden inputs from the driver. If you turn the steering wheel sharply one way, the tyres don't have enough grip to change the direction of the car, so the wheels may point one way, but the car ploughs ahead. Maintain your focus on steering the vehicle with both hands on the steering wheel and avoiding sudden movements. This also requires that you avoid driver distractions.
Be Cautious when Overtaking
There is a need for special caution when overtaking on gravel roads. There are no road markings to indicate whether the stretch of the road is safe to overtake and you may not be aware of other roads and farm entrances from the side. Do not assume that the vehicle or farming equipment ahead of you is roadworthy or that it will indicate before entering a side road. Only overtake on a long stretch of straight road where visibility is clear and the vehicle ahead is aware of your presence.
Keep to the side of the road and check for visibility
Keep to the left as you approach and go around corners. If someone comes the other way at high speed, you might not have the time to safely move to your side of the road.
Gravel can be very dusty, especially in dry weather conditions. When you pass a car coming the other way, there might be a short period where you are enveloped in a cloud of thick red dust lifted up by the other car and can't see anything. This can be particularly nasty if you are, or are about to, go around a corner. Always remember - If you cannot see you should not drive!
Losing control and making an Emergency Stop
Even the safe and focused driver may find him in the position where he has to make a sudden stop in an emergency while driving on gravel. What would the best advice be in an emergency?
- It is most important to remain calm and keep both hands on the wheel so you are in control of the vehicle –do not fight the vehicle!
- If your vehicle does begin to skid, don’t hit the brakes. Take your foot off the accelerator, stay calm, look where you want to go, gently steer in that direction and keep driving at a lower speed.
- Try not to make the mistake that causes a lot of accidents on gravel roads: over-correction.
- Accidents occur when the driver tries to correct the movement of the car, losing control and eventually crashing not on the side of the road they were originally headed towards.
- To straighten up your vehicle when it is sliding sideways, steer out of the slide. This means to steer in the direction of the forward side of the vehicle.
- Don't be afraid to use the entire width of the road (unless there are other cars around), it's easier to slide gently over to the wrong side of the road than it is to try and wrestle the car into line on the correct half of the road.
- While you try to steer out of the slide, ease off on the accelerator and maybe gently apply the brakes.
- Remember, you don't want to do anything too suddenly.
What if I cannot avoid the crash?
- If you cannot avoid the crash you should try to crash in a way that will minimize damage to yourself and other passengers. You don't want to be brought to a sudden stop. This will hurt you the most.
- If given the choice between a single large tree or a fence, 20 metres of loose scrub and then a ditch, choose the latter. It will stop you slower.
- If you must hit something, hit it with the front of the car. The front of a car is designed to cop the brunt of a serious collision.
- Once you have stopped, it would be wise to get out of the car if you can, as with all that fuel and heat around, there is a chance of a deadly fire.
- Be careful if you have to pull other people out of the car, you may be worsening possible spine injuries.
4x4 Vehicles and driving on Gravel
For the safest drive on gravel, a four-wheel drive system is always desirable. This lessens the effects of oversteer and understeer that become apparent in rear-wheel or front-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive cars behave more predictably on gravel.
On the Arrive Alive website is a rather comprehensive section on 4x4 Off-Road Driving Techniques & Safety. We would like to urge road users to visit this section and also pay close attention to the page titled 4x4 Sand Driving Safety.
Always drive within the limits of your ability and experience. Do not assume that you know how to drive on all road surfaces. Be a safe driver and a cautious driver!!