Driving on the edge

Blog post posted on 05/10/22 |

What’s the best way to tackle a steep and winding road safely? In another of our series of safe driving articles, Richard Gladman, IAM RoadSmart’s Head of Driving & Riding Standards, offers his expert advice.

In the UK, Kirkstone Pass on the A592, the A496 between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Llanelltyd in Snowdonia, or the A537 Cat and Fiddle Road in Derbyshire are generally considered to be three of the most challenging roads. In Europe, the Stelvio Pass in northern Italy or the Furka Pass in Switzerland are also famous for putting driving skills to the test, and are not for people who don’t have a head for heights.

Another famous, but difficult road in the UK is Hardknott Pass in the Lake District. The hardest section is only around two miles in distance (the whole route is around 12 miles or so) but it also boasts some extremely steep inclines - one with a gradient of more than 30% - all on a single-track road (with fairly regular passing places). It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Says Richard: “It's like an Alpine pass; it zigzags down into the valley and then zigzags up the other side and then goes across the edge of the mountain, so it's stunning. I've done it twice on a motorbike, but it's actually a horrible road to drive up, though it’s spectacular once you get to the top.

“The problem with it, is that the road is at such a steep angle that when you’re on a bike there are sections where you can’t physically stop because the road falls away too much and you wouldn’t be able to put your foot down – so you really have to carefully consider where you pull up.”

This, adds Richard, also means that for bikers confronted by an oncoming car there are fewer places for them to pull over. “Of course, on a bike you can’t reverse, and you might encounter the worst reversing car driver, so you really have to pick your places. Plus, be careful if you are pulling over outside of the passing places, because some of the edges of the road are a little bit broken.”

In terms of how to tackle the steep slopes of roads such as Hardknott Pass, Richard advises choosing a low gear at an early stage, even in an automatic, so you’re not relying on mechanical braking. “In an electric or hybrid car put on the maximum amount of regeneration that you can, so that you can control your speed without constantly using your brakes..

“Make your gear changes early if you are in a manual car; don't wait until you run out of puff in third before you go down into second: There are some roads that once you are in first gear, you’ll probably not get out of it - Hardknott Pass is one of them.”

Not surprisingly, the more scenic the road, the more tourists there might be driving it. “People need to be patient and not try and do anything stupid. On these small roads you might not get caravans or motorhomes, but you are likely to get farm vehicles, such as tractors. Don’t try to get past it, just accept it. And if it’s coming towards you, it will be down to you to get out of its way,” he stresses.

Drivers and riders  also need to consider what wildlife or farm animals they may encounter. Sheep and cattle often roam free – particularly in national parks, and in Wales there are wild ponies. “It’s important to keep an eye on what any animals are doing. For instance, sheep usually ignore any traffic. If they have their back to the road and are grazing they’re unlikely to walk out. But if they’re facing the road and looking ahead, then they are likely to just walk right out.”

So, to sum up Richard’s advice: don’t take driving or riding on steep winding roads lightly. If you’re not a confident driver in terms of reversing and using your cars gears to control your speed, then perhaps it’s worth giving this type of road a miss.

If you’d like to hone your driving or riding skills so you’re better prepared to tackle a challenging drive, then take a look at our Advanced Driver and Rider courses.