I live and drive in the mountains. While you can expect me to be the idiot who is incapable of being sensible in a town, I do know about getting around safely and ecologically in them thar hills.

During my travels over passes and up and down mountainsides, I have had the occasion to get very irritated with a number of my fellow road-users. I've often thought Someone should teach them how to drive. Even when there is no snow on the roads, I have encountered a number of idiots and their idiotic behaviour. I can hear you saying But I'm no idiot! Fair enough. But, unless you have driven in the mountains as much as I have, there are probably a number of things you never thought through. And now you don't have to, because I have done it for you. So here is the guide on driving in mountains.

People actually live here

The first implication of this is that you should strive to respect them: often, there are speed limitations through what you might deem insignificant villages. These limitations are in place because, as with any residential area, there are people who travel on foot, there are kids playing and there are people trying to relax without having cars zooming past their house, making a lot of noise. Keep to the speed limit through villages, even if they seem empty. Remember, you might only annoy a local for a minute through some form of inconsiderate behaviour. But consider that if each driver passing through annoys a dozen locals for a minute, you end up with an army of pretty pissed off people. It's just bad karma! Be nice.

Another thing to bear in mind is that locals will be able to drive quite a bit faster than you because they know the road. They may also only be driving short distances, in which case they may be a lot more touchy about losing five or ten minutes than someone who has a four-hour drive ahead of them. The converse could also be that they are in no hurry and are just going to the next village; so if they're driving slower than you, there is no point in your overtaking them as chances are that they'll be turning off soon.

You can often tell by their numberplate and by other information whether a car in front of you is driven by a local. They will know a number of things which are not obvious to you: where there are pull-ins on narrow roads; where you have to stop and wait for cars coming in the opposite direction and where there are the necessary long straights for overtaking. Look out for local bus and lorry drivers: they're used to manoeuvering their huge vehicles around bends and other cars; follow any instructions they appear to be giving.

Mountain roads go up and down

This is the main reason that we stick drivers do not like automatics. You just never end up in the right gear for what you want to do. I've only once driven an automatic in the mountains and I thoroughly didn't enjoy it. When going up, there are two conflicting considerations. You want to be in a gear low enough to preserve power. But you want to shift up as soon possible in order to save fuel and be considerate of the environment. I usually find that sharp bends need second gear, the rest of the time you can be in third gear and on long straight-ish parts, you can occasionally move up to fourth. If your revs are anywhere up above 3500, you're in too low a gear. Also, in order to preserve power, try not to slow down too much. If you need to accelerate but can't, shift down.

When going down, shift to low range if you are driving an automatic and keep to a lowish gear with a manual. The main consideration is that you should not drive on your brakes. Just ride the engine. The only time you should need to brake is in short bursts, just before bends. Prefer short, strong applications to prolonged soft ones: in the latter case, your brakes could overheat and they will fade and eventually fail. If you find you have to brake too often, move to a lower gear. In order to be both fuel-efficient and ecological, don't accelerate to pick up speed; just shift to a higher gear and obey the law of gravity.

Talking of gravity, you really will feel its force a lot more in the mountains. Your stopping distances will be a lot longer when going down and quite a bit shorter, going up. You should also be very wary of the road surface: even in summer and dry weather, the roads are often bumpy and broken up, lengthening your stoppage distance and further increasing the risk of skidding. Use your engine brake

Mountain roads are turny

Basically, the straighter your path, the faster you can go, the less you will wear out your tires and burn fuel and the more comfortable your passengers will feel. There are two main rules. The first is to stick to your side of the middle at all times. The second is to drive on the opposite side of the road at any time this is safe and advantageous. Look at the following situation. These situations will all assume countries where you drive on the right-hand side of the road

_____________		      ___________
             `-._    X    _.-´

- - - - - - - _             _ - - - - - -
°..° > > > > >  - _> > >_ - > > > °..°
°  °                - -           °  °
_____________                 ___________
             `-._         _.-´

Clearly, provided there are no oncoming cars, or cars desirous of overtaking you, it is better to go straight across the bend, rather than take it. But be very careful. If, instead of being a zig-zag, this bend were a steady curve to the left, you would not actually be able to see the oncoming cars. In case of such a blind bend, it is very important that you do stay on your own side of the road. Now imagine a car coming in the opposite direction. If it stays well to the right, its visibility may be impaired by the rock marked by X. The best thing it can do is drive in the middle of the road, thus affording it the best possible visibility of the road ahead and giving itself ample time to move over if it sees an oncoming car.

          Y    `-._
 - - - - - - - .   \
______________  \   \
              \  \   |
               |X ¦  |
______________/  /   |
                /   /
 - - - - - - - ´  _/

In this hairpin, a car approaching from the bottom can make a more gentle curve if it cuts across the X marked in the diagram. For this, it has to have good visibility of the road on the other side (this is frequently the case, when the road is winding up a mountain). A car approaching from the top can make a better turn if it moves over the road to point Y in order to begin his turn. It then cuts down to point X, from where it can either stay at constant speed on its own side of of the road if there is oncoming traffic or accelerate over to exit the bend on the opposite side of the road if possible.

Strategic positioning on the other side of the road serves the dual purpose of straightening the road out and providing more visibility. In cases where crossing the road appears unsafe, working with both sides of your allocated half can still be beneficial for both reasons. Don't be scared of the drop on the one side, or the cliff wall on the other.

You may need to change gear to go round a bend. Try to anticipate this by changing before the bend. This will both prevent loss of power if you are going up and allow your low gear to prevent you from needing to brake when going down. Also, differentials do not enjoy your releasing the clutch during a bend. The proper way of taking any corner in a car is to slow down to your desired speed before turning. Take the corner at a constant speed. Then accelerate out of it. Mountain driving is no exception.

Mountain roads are narrow

Roads group into 4 narrowness categories:

  • Wide enough for two cars to pass with room to spare.
  • Just wide enough for two cars to pass.
  • Wide enough for one car with room to spare.
  • Just wide enough for one car.

Your job is to always know which category you are currently in and to assess the upcoming stretch of road. If the road is getting narrower, look for somewhere to pass. If a car opposite is stopped, possibly he is waiting for you somewhere he thinks is wide enough. Don't force people into the gutter when you have lots of room to spare on your side. And remember, never act in such a way that the narrowness category of the road is reduced. This is also true when you are a pedestrian or cyclist. If there is room for a car and you, don't stand in the middle of the road, forcing the car to stop.

On narrow roads, visibility becomes even more important. If there is plenty of room for two cars, and you suddenly encounter a stopped vehicle in front of you, you have to be able to stop in the visible distance. On the other hand, if the road is narrow, you and an oncoming car both need to be able to stop. Your allocated stoppage distance is only half of the visible distance. In some cases, this means you have very little stoppage distance. Slow down in consequence.

Some people travel slower than others

Mountain roads are the place where people's speeds are the most variable. Very often, you are either going to be holding people up or stuck behind someone. What should you do in these situations? Never fear! I shall reveal all.

If you are driving slower than others:

  • Be consistently slow. You are probably slower round the bends. Don't speed up when it is straight. Other cars will want to be overtaking you on the straight parts.
  • Don't cut the corners so much. In the first diagram, above, someone might want to overtake you. He can only do this safely if you leave him room to do so.
  • If there is a build-up of cars behind you, consider pulling in to let them through.
  • If you are with friends, travelling in two cars, don't travel in convoy. Leave plenty of room between each of you. Overtaking two cars at the same time is difficult. If you are behind someone whose speed you are comfortable with, don't drive too close to them. Overtaking cars will need do so in two steps and need room to pull in between you.
  • If someone behind you seems to be tailgating you but not overtaking when he could, this may be because he doesn't have a powerful car. He can drive faster than you, but can't pick up the speed to accelerate. Let him me through.

If you are driving faster than others:

  • Consider whether it really is worth overtaking.
  • Don't drive too close. You want to have room to pick up speed before overtaking.
  • If you are caught in a long line, say behind a lorry or an RV, don't overtake the people in line in front of you. It's just bad form. When you come to a spot for overtaking, the first 3 or 4 cars in the line will be able to overtake. If the fifth car decides to overtake the four in front of him and the lorry, the number of overtaking vehicles for that passing spot will have been one instead of four.
  • Watch out for cyclists. If you come up behind a group of cyclists (a common occurrence on European roads in summer), this will be as difficult as overtaking a very slow car. Make sure to be well clear of them as it is very frightening to have a car power past you, a few inches from your handle bars.

Anything else?

Yeah, plenty. Most of it is just common sense though. As in most things in life, the basic rules of being considerate and putting yourself in others' shoes will serve you well.

Now keep out of my way, roadhog!

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