Thoughts about driving on gravel roads

A while back I spent a fun weekend driving around rural gravel roads with a rally stage crew, helping pull off the Olympus Rally's visit to Pomeroy, WA. It reminded me that everyone has their own style and comfort level when it comes to driving on those kinds of surfaces. This is true to a much greater extent on gravel than it is on pavement. Gravel roads generally have few advisory signs, no posted speed limits, and no edge or centerline markings, so the driver's own common sense comes into play a lot more.

Like most people I'm a more conservative driver now than I was when I was a teenager. Thinking back on some of the stupid things I did then, I decided it'd be interesting to distill down some of the rules of thumb I've come to follow to keep myself out of trouble.

Note that this is about driving on public roads; driving on roads closed for competition is another topic entirely, and not one I claim to know anything about.

  1. Limit your speed so you can always stop within the distance you can see. This can mean slowing quite a bit for blind curves and hill crests, especially on loose gravel where stopping distances are long. The reason is pretty simple; you can guess what's probably in the area you can't see, but you don't know what's there. Rural roads in farm country are used by every form of transport imaginable. It's not unheard of to crest a hill and find a combine harvester on the other side, travelling at a stately 3 mph and completely blocking the road from ditch to ditch.
  2. Traction will be best where traffic has swept the loose gravel off the road. Unless the road is unusually wide, this is often in the center.
  3. Keep right on blind crests.
  4. Headlights on, day or night. In very dusty conditions, turn on your high beams during daylight hours. The idea is to make yourself visible to oncoming traffic, even if they're only catching glimpses of you. If they don't see you, they're likely to be in the middle of the road, thanks to #2.
  5. Proceed with caution if you encounter a dust cloud. In particular, never charge at speed into a dust cloud you can't see through. Logging trucks and grain haulers have been known to hide inside dust clouds.
  6. Courtesy suggestion: No more than 35 mph when passing residences that are close to the road. This reduces the amount of dust you spread onto their lawn and home. Also, there are no leash laws in rural areas, and it's surprisingly common to find someone's beloved family pet walking down the middle of the road.