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Path, field and trees (Patrick Morand/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Path, field and trees (Patrick Morand/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Ask Joanne

All the dirt on driving gravel roads Add to ...

We’re urban folks soon to be moving to the prairies with a bit apprehensive about the gravel roads.

Do you have any tips? What do we need to know to stay safe? – Ghislaine in Hull, Que.

If you’re accustomed to city driving, there’s no doubt that you’ll notice handling differences on gravel roads.

Tires have reduced traction on loose gravel, and steering is less precise, which means maintaining stable control of your vehicle is more challenging.

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“The first thing we tell people is to slow down. Even really well-maintained gravel roads tend to have rough sections and loose gravel that require lower speeds,” says Rebecca Rogoschewsky with Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI).

“Gravel roads without a posted limit in Saskatchewan are 80 km/h, although remember that speed is for ideal conditions only. If it’s rainy or snowing or you just don’t feel comfortable, slow down.”

Visibility can be an issue due to the dust clouds kicked up by your vehicle, and by those travelling ahead.

“A lot of municipalities will put down a dust-control chemical, which keeps the dust to a minimum. But without that dust control, I’ve driven on gravel roads where it’s thicker than fog. It’s very, very difficult to ride in. Sometimes you need to put on your four-ways just so the other vehicle can see you coming,” says Brian Smiley of Manitoba Public Insurance.

Flying stones are another hazard to be aware of, especially if you don’t want to lose a headlight, or windshield. If a vehicle is travelling in front of you, allow plenty of space. Because it takes longer to stop on gravel roads, and dust can impede your visibility, road safety experts suggest a minimum of six seconds of following distance instead of the three seconds usually recommended on paved roads.

Many 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.

“When you’re driving on gravel, it’s generally a good idea to drive in the tire tracks that are already on the road. This holds true even if there is only one set of tracks in the centre of the road; it’s better to stay on those tracks that are already worked into the gravel. If you’re climbing a hill or see a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, slow down and pull over as far to the right as possible,” says Rogoschewsky.

The most important thing to keep in mind on gravel is: slow down. To avoid skidding, when accelerating or turning a corner, do so gently, and brake gradually when slowing down or stopping. But what if you do begin to feel like you’re losing control?

“It comes back to remaining calm. You want to have both hands on the wheel so you are in control of the vehicle. It’s normal for the vehicle to feel like it’s wandering slightly on gravel, but just don’t fight your vehicle – try not to over steer. 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,” says Rogoschewsky.

Remember, on gravel roads in farm country, you’re more likely to encounter wildlife. And be ready for a close encounter with a combine, or a loaded grain truck.

Send your automotive questions to Joanne Will at globedrive@globeandmail.com

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