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How to drive safely on gravel, dirt roads

As winter turns to spring, we want to get out of the cities and towns and enjoy some fresh air. Sometimes that includes leaving a paved surface and driving on gravel or dirt roads.

Driving on these surfaces requires a different set of skills than driving on paved roads. Before we get into the hustle of summer holidays and picnics, it’s a good idea to review some safety tips.

Slow down

When you first hit gravel, your traction will change. You don’t know if the road has loose gravel or hard-packed gravel. Slow down and get a feel for the road before you speed up.

Always drive at a speed that allows you to stop for people, animals or road hazards. Remember that your braking distance will be greater than usual.

Be prepared

Have a map or GPS handy. Road signs can be few and far between. Make sure you have enough gas to get there and back again. Don’t count on cell service – tell a friend or family member where you’re going and when you’ll be back.

Maintain an effective follow distance

In the best of circumstances, stay at least six seconds behind the vehicle ahead of you. You don’t know when a hazard will pop up in front of that driver and force a quick stop. Also, staying back will decrease your problems with the dust cloud kicked up by the other vehicle.

Steer safely

Because you are on loose gravel, your car will react in unexpected ways to sudden changes. Steer calmly and safely, change your direction with quiet determination, and avoid driver distractions.

Be ready for skids

Skidding on gravel is not uncommon. If you skid, stay calm, take your foot off the gas and steer in the direction you want to go. Let the vehicle’s momentum carry you in that direction and resume driving at a slower speed.

If you do lose control and start to skid:

  • Stay calm
  • Take your foot off the gas and don’t hit the brakes
  • Don’t fight the vehicle – steer in the direction of the skid. Many crashes occur because of overcorrection and loss of control
  • Don’t be afraid to use the entire road (if there are no cars around)
  • As you slow and come out of the skid, gently apply the brakes
  • Don’t make any sudden steering changes

Adjust your tire pressure

If you are going to be on gravel or dirt roads for any length of time, consider dropping your tire pressure. If you drop it by about 5 psi from the recommended psi listed on the tire wall, you will have better traction. Make sure, however, that when you get back onto paved roads you use an air compressor or stop at a gas station to re-inflate your tires to their recommended psi. Having a pressure gauge handy for this maneuver is a good idea.

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