How to drive safely on South Africa's gravel roads

Don’t assume that you know how to drive on all road surfaces. Always drive within the limits of your ability and experience…

South Africa’s destinations often involve some gravel road driving in order to get to them, but not everyone is confident (or experienced) enough to take their vehicle off the beaten track. In face, Arrive Alive says that many licensed drivers have never driven on gravel roads or are inexperienced and unprepared for the unique challenges when doing so.

Of course, if your vehicle is equipped with off road capabilities then things aren’t quite as tricky, but it is still equally as important to adjust your driving behaviour when moving away from tarred roads to gravel roads.

So what are the best safe driving suggestions to follow when driving on a gravel road? Arrive Alive suggests the following:

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.

Steer  Safely

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!