Road conditions and obstacles in underdeveloped countries are frustrating, to say the least. Drivers accustomed to U.S. or European roads can find many situations terrifyingly dangerous.
Many destinations have roads that are seldom marked or in a state of complete disrepair. Traffic is a maze of sketchy public transportation, motorcycles, donkey carts, pedestrians and animals of all shapes and sizes. The rules of the road may be wildly different than your home country. In many places traffic laws are completely ignored. Making sense of the chaos is something even locals find difficult.
Below are a few pointers to help you avoid common driving hazards, learned from our experience of driving tens of thousands of miles in foreign countries.
The best advice for driving on unknown roads is to avoid driving at night, at all costs. Roads probably aren’t lit, and the normal dangers of driving during the day are exponentially greater. Obstacles like pot holes, speed bumps, missing manhole covers and ice are much more difficult to spot. Street signs all but disappear. Highway lanes merge abruptly and bridges narrow to a single lane without warning. Telephone poles are set several feet into the road and trees sprout from the pavement.
Powerful headlights and high beams help. At the same time oncoming traffic may be blinding because other drivers don’t bother lowering their high beams.
Take our advice and don’t drive at night, especially if road conditions are poor, you are tired or have no experience driving the route. Take a taxi. Plan to stop early. Do everything you can to avoid the hazards of a dark road. If you have no choice, drive slow, take your time and be well rested!
Rural and urban roads that run through town are often the center of activity. They are usually the only way to get from one end of town to the other. Many do not have the luxury of sidewalks or large shoulders. Buildings are located close to the road and pedestrians and animals have no choice but to share the road with motorized vehicles.
Animals are the most unpredictable obstacle of all. They give you little warning before crossing the road. Accidents can happen any time of the day but are more likely from dusk to dawn. Animals are easily spooked and can jump in front of an approaching vehicle and then freeze in the headlights. They may also decide to sleep in roads after darkness falls, while the pavement still warm from the day’s sun. The best tip for avoiding animals at night is to watch for the reflection of your lights in their eyes.
Speed bumps, speed humps, rumble strips or topes, call them what you will. They are the cheapest and most convenient way to ensure drivers do not exceed the speed limit.
Most speed bumps probably won’t be painted, and you’ll be lucky if there’s a warning sign. The only clue to their existence are skid marks or another driver slowing down in front of you.
In Tanzania, speed bumps were placed at the entrance and exit of every little town. We found them in sets of three, an axle-shattering mountain sandwiched between two smaller bumps.
Slow down when approaching a town and pay attention to the way other drivers handle the road ahead of you. Most importantly, watch the road. In our experience, hitting a speed bump you don’t see will improve your observation skills quite a bit.
The most common road hazards encountered are potholes. Potholes are only easy to spot in ideal weather conditions. When it is raining, what looks like a puddle may actually be a hole big enough to swallow a wheel.
On wet dirt roads, follow the tracks in the mud. Trust that experienced drivers before you knew how to avoid the potholes.
Study road signs before you enter a country and make sure you know the language equivalent of important signs, like “Do Not Enter” or “Stop”. In most countries, signs will be less prevalent than you’re used to. They may also be difficult to read at night, lacking a reflective coating.
In Namibia we found that local road crews dropped boulders across a road that was soon to be paved. Probably a more effective way of keeping traffic of the road than a “Do Not Enter” sign.
Oddly placed branches lying partly in the road may be a sign of a obstacle ahead. A poor man’s warning triangle or road flare. Skid marks are also dead give away for upcoming trouble.
Pay attention to speed limits and don’t assume there will be a sign. Ask police or other locals for general guidelines for speed limits on highways, cities and back roads. Speed limits can change quickly without notice, frequently as a highway enters town. Police love to camp in these areas, issuing tickets to anyone who doesn’t slow fast enough.
Below is a quick breakdown of how much time you have to think and react to an obstacle on the road:
|Thinking distance||60 ft||18 m|
|Breaking distance||180 ft||55 m|
|Overall stopping distance||240 ft||73 m|
Thinking distance is the same as the traveling speed in feet e.g. 30 mph = 30 ft. thinking distance, 60 mph = 60ft thinking distance.
When driving in Australia you will notice signs that say “DRIVE ON LEFT in Australia” this is not meant as a joke. Lots of people die just because they forget what side of the road to be on.
Here is an image of countries that drive on the left and the right.