Amélie and I lived in the Alps for 4 years. If the stress of big-city traffic doesn’t exist when you’re riding in the Bauges massif or near the Swiss border, other worries linked to the weather and terrain can quickly arise.
Whether you’re planning a trip or moving to the Alps, you need to learn the right reflexes to drive safely in the Alps.
More control over your car’s condition
The Alps are not the American Wild West. Most of the roads are in perfect condition, and there are no roads where you can go dozens of kilometers without coming across a village. Nevertheless, your car is subjected to a more difficult ride than on a city-center route. On ascents and descents, the brakes, shock absorbers and engines have to work hard. For this reason, check the condition of your car more often, and when it’s time to replace a part, do so.
If you’re going to the Alps for a short stay and your car is old or in poor condition, consider renting one. If it can give you peace of mind for the duration of your stay, and allow you to climb the mountains without hearing your car screaming in pain, it’s a smart investment.
Fitting the right tires to your car
If you’re in the Alps in summer, just make sure your tires aren’t too slick. This will prevent slipping on bends or hard braking.
But if you’re going to be in the Alps in winter, you’ll need to change your tires, even if you’re only planning to drive in large towns like Chambéry or Aix-les-Bains. Traffic jams on the A40 and A42 freeways are common in winter, caused by drivers with summer tires.
During our 4 years in Savoie, I had simplified my life by fitting 4-season tires. But to get to the resorts, I had friends drive me around on winter tires. It’s not a choice, it’s an obligation. Some roads are only possible if you have suitable tires and chains or tire socks in the trunk. When heavy snowfalls are forecast, police checks become more frequent at the foot of the mountains, and drivers who don’t respect the rules are fined and have their vehicles immobilized.
In addition to tires, make sure you’re well equipped. In winter, you always have the gear you need to stay warm and visible in case of a breakdown. So, in addition to fluorescent vests, I always carried two heavy blankets, a flashlight, a bottle of water and a few protein bars.
Reduce your speed as soon as necessary
When it snows, reduce your speed. Everyone knows this, yet not everyone respects this basic rule. Some drivers think that winter tires are enough to keep them safe, and start driving as fast as they would on dry pavement. At the first traffic circle or sudden braking, you’ll realize your mistake… When it’s snowing or when heavy showers are falling, limit your speed.
But that’s not the only time when moderate speed is a good idea. I also advise you to do it at night, close to forests. In some parts of the Alps, wildlife is very present. It’s not unusual to see a doe or a wild boar suddenly cross the road. It happened to me once. I was lucky enough to see the doe hit the side of my car rather than the front. It immediately limped off… My bodywork was left with a nice dent in the door. The main thing is that there were no injuries among us or the other motorists, but on the day I sold my car, it lowered the purchase price…
Limit your speed in villages, too, as Alpine mayors love (overly) elevated speed bumps. If you’re on an 80km/h or 90 km/h road and you come to a village, you can be sure that there will be at least one, and more often, two or three.
Pay attention to the duration of overruns
This is especially true when you’re going downhill or uphill. Your habits of overtaking on flat roads will be turned upside down when you try to overtake a car on a 12% gradient. The experience even becomes frustrating and dangerous when your vehicle lacks power and, despite your foot on the gas pedal, doesn’t seem to want to pick up speed.
For this reason, I often found myself behind slower vehicles that I didn’t want to overtake, even though I’m the type of person who drives too fast rather than too slow.
To overtake a car, you need to be sure you have the right vehicle and the right distance. On winding mountain roads, it’s difficult to have good vision. Don’t assume that the road is clear because you haven’t seen a car on the road ahead for five minutes.
On most climbs, you’ll find areas that are less steep than others. Wait until you reach these areas before overtaking. As for the busiest roads (to popular ski resorts), they regularly have passages with an extra lane for slower vehicles. These are therefore convenient places to overtake safely.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to tell you to watch out for overtaking… on downhill sections! There are two reasons for this. The slow-moving vehicle in front of you may accelerate downhill. I’m always surprised to see how many drivers have this dangerous reflex when someone overtakes them. Secondly, when you’re going downhill, it’s very easy to get carried away and accelerate too much, to the point of losing partial control of your car.
Honk before sharp turns
I’ve always found the roads in the Alps more practical than those in the Basque Country. The roads are wider and you have fewer hairpin bends. But there are a few areas that are an exception. If you can’t see the oncoming road at all as you enter a bend, honk your horn. This will warn any oncoming car that you’re coming.
Don’t think it’s useless. Too many people imagine they’re alone on mountain roads and take very wide bends, to the point of having their vehicle in the middle of both lanes. Even if you’re driving correctly, crossing such a hazard can cause an accident.
Stay on track
As I’ve just said, driving out of your lane can happen very quickly. This is the case for drivers who think they’re alone, or for drivers who imagine they’re on a racetrack and want to “cut through the bends” to save time.
But it’s also a deviation that occurs with fatigue, poor speed in bends, poor apprehension of the curves of the road, lack of lighting, a failure to pay attention… All my advice comes together. If you reduce your speed, the risk of veering off course vanishes.
Don’t look at the landscape while driving
My blog and its photos are a testament to the beautiful landscapes we’ve seen around the world. Without being chauvinistic, the Alps are among the most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life. I give special mention to the view of Lac-du-Bourget from the surrounding mountains or Lac d’Annecy, but the views from the roads of the Vanoise National Park are wilder and just as magnificent.
The first time you see these sights, the reflex is to slow down and look. But by momentarily stopping to look at the road, you put yourself, your passengers and other motorists at risk.
On the roads, you’ll often come across parking lots or dirt road entrances. If you want to admire the view for a few minutes, park in such places. You’ll be able to take photographs and note landscape details without taking any risks.
The Alps are unique. For city dwellers used to flat roads and four-lane carriageways, it can take some getting used to. But, rest assured, the roads are well maintained and traffic is light (except in winter, on the outskirts of the resorts), making it easy to discover. If you follow my advice, you’ll be perfectly safe when traveling by car.