Safe driving in the mountains / mountain passes


With a rather extensive road network across South Africa drivers are bound to traverse across mountains and mountain passes at some time. Even though this may be an exhilarating experience, we often find drivers behind the wheel without the necessary experience and awareness of the unique challenges to the vehicle and driving techniques required.

Drivers need to be prepared for steep hills, windy roads, wildlife, and rocks in the roadway. These challenges become even more difficult when driving on gravel roads and in adverse weather conditions.

Apart from obeying the Rules of the Road, there are additional requirements to be prepared for the trip, knowing about priority rules, knowing how to control your vehicle on slopes and paying attention to speed adjustments when necessary.

In this section we would like to take a closer look at these unique challenges to driver, vehicle, driving ability and offer advice for safer driving.

Preparedness for the Drive

Drivers should be prepared for the journey especially in remote areas where they may not be familiar with the roads. The need for preparedness increases where there may be other challenges such as adverse weather including snow, fog and mist and veld fires.

Some passes may be too narrow or steep and drivers may be advised not to take along a trailer or caravan. We recommend using a GPS device or tools such as Google Maps to find routes and travel times.

If you plan to divert from the main roads always consider the following:

  • Check local weather and road conditions that may affect your drive.
  • Pay attention to road signage and warnings of possible road closures, rock falls, flooding etc.
  • Unpaved surfaces provide significantly less traction, so slow down and take curves on a wider arc than you might attempt on paved roads.
  • Inform others where you are going and when you expect to return.

The Driver and Mountain driving

When driving at higher elevations, insufficient hydration can lead to symptoms of altitude sickness, affecting alertness. The higher the altitude, the less oxygen there is in the air. Some people may develop mild symptoms such as headache, nausea, and fatigue. Remember, insufficient hydration can lead to the onset of symptoms of altitude sickness.

The following recommendations may assist those driving mountains and pass at high altitude:

  • Carry extra drinking water, and remember to drink fluids throughout the day.
  • Drink two to three times more fluids than usual—water and juices are best.
  • Eat frequent small meals.
  • Avoid driver fatigue by taking regular breaks.
  • Navigating mountain roads can be more tiring than flatland driving.  Consider limiting travel on challenging roads.
  • Avoid alcohol – Both as drivers and passengers.
  • Decrease salt intake.

The Vehicle and Vehicle Fitness for Mountain Driving

Steep uphill and downhill driving can put an extra strain on your vehicle’s main components, from your engine to your brakes. It is in these driving conditions that the vehicle engine is most likely to overheat.

We would like to offer the following suggestions on vehicle fitness for mountain driving:

  • Ensure that your brakes, windshield wipers, defroster, heater, and exhaust systems are in good condition.
  • Check that your lights are ineffective working condition if you are to drive at night.
  • Brake and transmission fluids must be filled and changed within the interval recommended for your vehicle.
  • Brake fluid, as it ages, takes on moisture and contaminants that lowers its boiling level. Frequent brake use can overheat the fluid and you can lose braking efficiency when it is most needed.
  • Check the tread on your tires and ensure that they are properly inflated.
  • When the drive is in winter, add special solvent to the windshield washer reservoir to prevent icing.
  • Keep the gas tank filled – avoid getting stranded without fuel in remote areas.
  • Turn off your air conditioning and roll your windows down if you’re travelling up a particularly steep grade, since running the air-conditioning puts an additional strain on your engine that can cause it to overheat.
  • Avoid overheating by slowing down.
  • When the car starts running hot, find a safe place to stop so it can cool down before continuing your climb.
  • Never remove your radiator cap until the engine is cool, and check your owner’s manual for insights on how to cool your engine down, or what type of coolant to add if needed.

Safe Driving Techniques in the Mountain

The ability to adjust the driving style and an awareness of the risks are some of the most important aspects to consider for safe driving in the mountains.

Consideration for Other Road Users

  • You may slow down to view the scenery but do so with awareness to others – do not hold up other traffic – look for a designated pull-out allowing other traffic to pass.
  • Remember to use the parking brake to avoid the car from rolling backwards.
  • Shift the transmission to first gear. When the slope is very steep you may put a stone behind the wheels and turn the steering wheel so that the car cannot roll very far.
  • Stay on your side of the road, and increase the following distance as sudden stops can strike at any time.
  • Don't "hug" the centre line. If you are hugging the centre line, and another centre-hugging vehicle comes around a curve from the opposite direction, both drivers may overcorrect and create a hazardous situation.
  • Remember that the car going UPHILL should be given the right of way because descending vehicles can continue more easily after coming to a full stop.
  • Always allow plenty of time for passing vehicles to make it back to their lane. Keep in mind that higher elevations diminish a vehicle's available horsepower.
  • When vehicles meet on a steep, narrow road which is not wide enough for two vehicles, the vehicle going downhill must yield the right-of-way by backing up to a wider place or by stopping to leave sufficient space for the vehicle going uphill, except where it is more practical for the vehicle going uphill to return to a wider space or turnout.
  • You may be sharing the road with cyclists, pedestrians and cattle.
  • Keep plenty of clear space when overtaking ascending cyclists, and use your direction indicator.
  • Overtaking descending cyclists is usually not necessary since they are at least as fast as cars.
  • Keep at a safe distance from cyclists.

Driving at the Correct and Safe Speed

  • Obey the posted speed limits, and look for signs that warn you about the steep grades that may lie ahead.
  • Your view can be blocked heavily in curves with rock walls or trees along the road, so you need to adjust your speed there.
  • Reduce speed during and after bad weather – there may be rocks and fallen trees around every corner.
  • Speed should never be too fast for road and weather conditions.
  • You should be able to maintain a safe speed on winding mountain roads.
  • A crash barrier or fence, which is mostly present, is not always designed to stop a vehicle.
  • Only pass slower-moving traffic when you’ve got a clear view of the road ahead. Never pass another car on a blind curve, or when your visibility is compromised.
  • Mountain roads may have unlit tunnels. Double-check if your lights are switched on, take off your sunglasses and adjust your speed.
  • Engage the suitable gear before dealing with any hills and don’t get caught out trying to engage a lower gear in corners or bends.

Driving Uphill

  • When ascending on a steep hill, maintain a steady speed by applying more pressure on the accelerator.
  • Monitor your temperature gauge in the vehicle to make sure you don't overheat.
  • If the vehicle is losing power while travelling uphill, use a lower gear to help prevent power loss.
  • Be alert and anticipate the movement of other traffic around you based on the other vehicles speed.
  • Be aware that the stress on the vehicle increases with the towing of a trailer.

Driving downhill

  • Don't go down a mountain road any faster than you can go up it.
  • When you decide it’s time for your downhill descent, use your engine and transmission to slow the car down instead of the brakes.
  • This will allow the slowing power from your engine to slow the car down.
  • You can use your brakes but just don't use them all the time.  If you start to smell them, it is wise to pull over and let them cool off if you have a long way to go. 
  • Downshift in gears - the only time you should step on your brake pedal is to slow while you are shifting down to a lower gear.
  • Do not coast downhill by shifting into neutral or disengaging the clutch.
  • Check traffic through your mirrors. Be alert for large trucks and buses that may be going too fast.

What to do if the brakes fail

  • Quick action is required if you notice that your brakes fail while you are driving.
  • Try to decelerate by pulling and releasing the brakes repeatedly, or try one more pull with hard pedal pressure.
  • Only pull the handbrake if the road is not slippery, otherwise, you will lose control of the vehicle completely. If necessary, change to gear 1 or 2 without shifting to neutral, hopefully causing the engine to decelerate.
  • In worst-case scenarios, you may have to choose the “lesser of the evils” in deciding where to bring the vehicle to a stop.
  • You can also turn into an ascending side-road or meadow to decelerate, or scrape the car at a small angle to a (rock) wall along the road.

Special Conditions and Challenges

There may be special considerations to take into account when driving in mountains and mountain passes:

  • Where weather conditions deteriorate into fog, rain, wind, or snow, slow down, be more observant, and demonstrate extra road courtesy.
  • Weather conditions may require extended periods of waiting for roads to be cleared, and your vehicle's engine should not be shut off during these periods.
  • If your vehicle stalls, stay with it. Cars are much more visible in snow than pedestrians.
  • When driving at night dim your high beams as soon as you see the sweep of an oncoming vehicle's lights. Hampering the other driver's night vision is more dangerous when there's a cliff involved.
  • Do not pull over on places with rubble on the road, because it indicates an increased risk of more rubble coming down.
  • Avoid wrecks with wildlife by keeping an eye out for animals, especially at night.

Click on any of the thumbnails below to view images in the gallery.

Also view:

Safe Driving with Trucks in the Mountains

Safe driving in Bad Weather

4x4 Vehicle Safety and Driving Techniques

Avoiding Animals on the Road

Safe Driving on Snow and Ice

Safe Driving at Night

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