It was cold—cold enough to turn the wet pavement beneath us into a veritable killing ground of black ice. But it wasn’t cold enough to turn what the meteorologists like to call a “wintry mix” into true snow, so we were stuck with the freezing rain and sleet that was pelting the windshield. It was also dark—the kind of dark you only get when you’re driving an unfamiliar road at 5 o’clock in the morning. But it wasn’t so dark that we couldn’t see the swelling ground fog rising up all around our vehicle. Our fog lights weren’t making a dent in the stuff; it was like driving in Stephen King’s The Mist. It was insanely nerve-wracking, crawling along at 15 mph, sometimes less, trying to negotiate a two-lane country road that had more twists and turns than a politician’s platform during campaign season.
We passed semis pulled over on the shoulder, waiting for the horrible fog to clear or maybe the sun to rise. We were occasionally passed by other motorists who seemed oblivious to the danger they were creating, barreling out into the left lane and oncoming traffic before zipping back in front of us, forcing me to jam on the brakes every few minutes. We were deep in that true white-knuckle driving experience that only occurs every now and then, that space when you remember that you're sitting inside of a giant steel, fiberglass, and plastic projectile that doesn’t care whether you live or die. And the best part is that we were only 10 miles from our home.
So, can you imagine being 100 miles from home, stuck on a dangerous road? How about in another state that you’ve never visited or a foreign country you know nothing about? How about on a road in a war zone or one prone to fatal mudslides 10,000 feet up? The world is a big place, and it's got a lot of dangerous roads that nobody in their right mind would ever want to traverse, but we somehow end up driving on anyway. Here are the 17 most dangerous of the bunch; just remember to read defensively and to always check your rearview before going on to the next entry—you never know what might be gaining on you.
17 Coast Roads, Croatia
We start our trip across the most hellish roads and highways in the world with a brief stop in Croatia. Oh, wait... maybe we shouldn’t stop. After all, nobody else in the country ever seems to use his or her brakes or even slow down while traversing the infamous coast roads. In fact, speed seems to be the name of the game along the coast roads, which are notorious for their blind corners and extremely sharp bends (umm, “hairpin turns” would be too polite for those bends). Of course, just to make things more interesting, the coast roads, which travel alongside the Adriatic Sea, are also well known for their total lack of barriers, meaning that when you get forced off the road by some speeding lunatic, there’s no guard rail between you and the ocean below. Of course, you could always try to veer the other way, into the cliff wall. Yay.
16 Widow Maker, The UK
England can be a land of stunning natural beauty—if you know how to get out of the cities and into some of its more remote areas. One such region is the Peak District, where we find the Widow Maker, a scenic death trap that snakes through the only mountainous area in the country. Of course, because you’re in the mountains, you can also expect snow on the road, something the rest of England doesn’t see very much of. This, of course, means that many drivers are, shall we say, a touch “inexperienced” with the conditions.
What’s even more fun about the Widow Maker is that it has plenty of very sharp turns and sheer embankments that come upon you rather surprisingly.
But that’s OK—the “guardrails” are usually massive stone walls, so you’ll be just fine when you slide across the ice and into one of them…
15 BR-116, Brazil
Yay, Brazil, too, has a “Highway of Death.” Gosh, I certainly hope we don’t get any more roads with that name—it’s just too scary! But, in my humble opinion, we shouldn’t even translate the infamous BR-116’s nickname into English anyway. Doesn’t Rodovia de Morte sound totally better? Of course, it does; it’s exotic. This road isn’t really that exotic, though; it’s just dangerous and scary as hell. Most observers say that the highway is actually sorta, kinda, mostly well maintained, at least by Brazilian standards. What makes this one another widow maker, though, is the highly unpredictable weather patterns that haunt it and a series of sheer and steep cliffs that finish what the bad weather started. No, wait... I take it back. What really makes this one of the most dangerous roads in the world is the simple fact that it appears to be ruled by modern-day banditos. Ouch, Brazil... just ouch.
14 Stelvio Pass, Italy
I’m pretty sure that if you want to know why this highway was included on our list, you should just look at the picture above. Still not convinced? Alright, that’s understandable. After all, one little picture can’t do justice to the fact that the Stelvio Pass, which winds through the alpine region of Italy (as in the actual Alps), has about 60 180-degree corners. Yes, you read that right—60 of them.
Seriously, this a road that even Mario Andretti would hate, probably because you have to keep your speed down on it or suffer the consequences.
Of course, when you throw in the fact that the road climbs up and down a few thousand feet and that Italian drivers aren't known for their conservatism, you’ve got a perfect storm of a road. Hmm, a storm—that’s exactly what you would never want to see if you were driving this thing.
13 Atlantic Road, Norway
I’m thinking that the first giveaway as to whether this road should be included on our list is the fact that its actual name is the “Atlantic” road. That’s Atlantic, as in the giant freakin’ ocean that pretty much surrounds Norway. Hmm, do you think that some of those Norwegian roads might have a rather close relationship with that ocean? If you do, well, you’re more right than you know.
The Atlantic Road is utterly notorious for winding along the coast of some of those Norwegian fjords for about five miles.
That might not seem like a very long distance to travel, but just imagine doing it while the waves are crashing over the railings to either side of you, and there’s an articulated lorry full of pickled herring bearing down on you from the opposite direction at 60 mph. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound like the way I want to go out…
12 James Dalton Highway, Alaska
If you’ve ever seen Ice Road Truckers (and if you haven’t, I’ve gotta ask, “why the hell not?!!?” It’s totally awesome!) then, unlike a bunch of the roads on this list, you would've actually heard of our next road to certain death and disintegration. The James Dalton highway is named after the guy who was chief engineer of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) system in Alaska—just look it up; it’s important—and is a truck-killer extraordinaire. That kind of makes sense, as this roughly 400-mile stretch of road is mostly used by the guys who drive the big rigs between the oil fields up by the Arctic Circle and Fairbanks. Now everybody who's probably heard of Fairbanks but you, me, and Dupree all know that we don’t really want to live there, except for about two months every summer. Can you imagine making the ice-bound trip back and forth between the relative comfort of Fairbanks and the Prudhoe oil fields, especially when the roads go unplowed, there’s an arctic wind blowing in that creates -50-degree wind chill, and every bend in the road becomes a slalom course for your rig? Yeah, neither can I.
11 Los Caracoles Pass, Chile
We’ll be seeing plenty more mountainous “roads” (I use the term loosely) as we cruise down our list, but if you thought traversing the Italian Alps along the Stelvio Pass was a fun drive in the mountains, have I got a treat for you. Welcome to Los Caracoles Pass in Chile, which replaces the Andes for the Alps and was seemingly designed with racing in mind—ski racing, that is, and in particular, the Giant Slalom. This highway has enough turns to satisfy the craziest thrillseeker. Oh, yeah... it’s also about 10,000 feet up and features the usual (on roads of this sort) total lack of barriers or guardrails. But on the plus side, you’ll get to share the road with hundreds of articulated trucks swaying along before, behind, and even sometimes alongside you. Oh, boy... doesn’t that sound like such a driving treat?
10 Federal Highway 1, Mexico
So there you are, rolling along the Baja Peninsula when a tractor-trailer barrels by you at 75 mph. You know what? That’s OK—it happens all of the time in the States, too. Then, another one does the same thing. Then another, and another, and another, and... well, you get my drift. If you don’t actually get sideswiped, you’re gonna feel like you want to be, just to get off the road for a minute. Highway 1, which is basically a thousand-mile stretch along said peninsula in Mexico, also meanders through its fair share of mountains and sheer cliffs. I know... there’s a surprise, right? Just in case none of this makes you think twice, ponder this—most Mexican states don’t require any sort of driving test before you get your license. So, if you thought drivers in the States were bad, well, just you wait.
9 Zoji Pass, India
Ladakh is an area of India that includes Kashmir. I thought I’d throw that in there for all of you Led Zeppelin fans. But if you were thinking of making a pilgrimage to the city that one of the greatest songs in the history of rock & roll was named after, you’d better have you-know-what's the size of you-know-whats.
It’s not by accident that Ladakh, which is connected to the rest of India by the Zoji Pass, is called the “land of high passes.”
The place is so remote that this road, which is basically one lane of dust and gravel, is pretty much shut down by massive snowfall in the winter. I guess that’s what happens when you cut a tiny road through the Himalayas at high elevation—not that anyone should be wanting to drive this route even in summer, as it’s basically five miles of 10,000-foot altitude with nothing on either side except cliffs and the air.
8 Karnali Highway, Nepal
OK, let’s break it down for this one. We’ve got a 150-mile stretch of highway (give or take a couple of miles), and a little over 50 people die on it each year. So, that’s about one highway fatality every three miles at least once a year. Seriously, my math is pretty bad, but that seems like a hell of a lot of traffic deaths. Since this road is in Nepal, which is pretty much one massive Himalayan mountain after another, it'll come as no surprise that people wax rhapsodic about the stunning views. But what they don’t talk about is the fact that this “highway” is basically a dirt road. I mean, sure it’s sort of graded and sort of tamped down, but at the end of the day, it's literally just a bunch of dirt spread over rocks thousands of feet up in the air. People commonly meet their fate on this road from a combination of gigantic potholes that segue into slippery sections of mud/loose dirt, followed up by some serious extreme incline issues.
7 Vitim River Bridge
It’s impossible to know just how lethal this particular stretch of Siberian road is since the old Soviet Union tended not to release any information about anything that could be even remotely construed as negative. Speaking of remote, did you catch that this vehicular bridge is in Siberia, which is about as far from civilization as one can get and still be below low-Earth orbit. Siberia is known for only a couple of things—endless snow, endless forests, and endless prison camps. So, it should come as no surprise that the Russians (excuse me, the Soviets) would build a ridiculously flimsy one-lane wooden bridge for their motor traffic. Of course, those selfsame Soviets didn’t build any cars that could even make it to Siberia, so maybe they knew what they were doing. On the other hand, who builds a 20th-century bridge out of wood, even for pedestrians?
6 Guoliang Tunnel, China
This road is certainly more than dangerous enough all on its own to qualify for this list. It’s got all of the prerequisites—poor road conditions (pavement was optional along some of it), no barriers, a nicely elevated view of the Taihang Mountains, and the looming threat of thousands of tons of rock hanging over you in the tunnel proper. But it also was fantastically dangerous to build.
Back in 1972, when the Chinese were still pretty far behind the West in terms of technology, the communist government embarked upon a series of “improvement” plans.
One result was the Guoliang Tunnel, which was hacked out of the mountain by Chinese peasants wielding mostly hand tools. Maybe that explains why it’s only 12 feet wide and 15 feet high—they just couldn’t get it any wider or taller with the tools at hand, quite literally. Such a narrow mountain road should have a nickname like "the road that does not tolerate mistakes." And guess what? It doesn't.
5 Highway Of Death, Iraq
This entry is just a little bit different than the rest of those on the list in that there really isn’t very much to recommend it as one of the “most dangerous” roads in the world. Iraq doesn’t have extreme weather, like blizzards and hurricanes that make some of the other highways on our list so treacherous. The Highway of Death isn’t situated in some cold mountain pass or some frozen tundra nor half-buried by an angry ocean. But it does have one of the most horrific backstories of any of these routes. You see, back during the Gulf War in 1991, American (well, “allied”) air power discovered a massive column of fleeing Iraqi military units and civilians. The resulting carnage from the bombing of that convoy has gone down in history as one of the worst road “incidents” in the history of driving. At least 500 Iraqis—and perhaps as many as 10,000—were killed. Almost 3,000 vehicles were also destroyed. By the way, if you want to travel this road nowadays, you might want to bring an armed escort along—the bombers might be long gone, but bandits and insurrectionists still rule much of it—the Highway of Death indeed.
4 Nanga Parbat Pass, Pakistan
Somebody must've been having fun when they named this infamous Pakistani pass that stretches for about 10 miles “Fairy Meadows Road.” As far as I can tell, there are no fairies, no meadows, and—guess what—no road. Basically, the pass is a gravel path that the Pakistanis seem to think should double as a road. Look, when you’re climbing almost six miles into the freaking ozone layer and the only thing you have underneath of you is some loosely crushed gravel and, by the way, no guardrails to either side, then maybe you should consider making the trip on a mountain goat. They have those in Pakistan, right? Or at least give it a shot on foot. Negotiating this treacherous nightmare in any kind of motorized vehicle seems like a total stretch and I, for one, am pretty sure I don’t want any part of it.
3 Karakoram Highway, Pakistan
Hey, I’ve got a great idea—let’s head out to another fun road in Pakistan and see if we come to the end of our trip in one piece. Anyone want to bet on it? I’ll give you really good odds.
This is the highway that connects Pakistan to China (ooh, exciting!) at the Khunjerab Pass. It does so at an altitude of almost 15,000 feet.
Look, I like driving just as much as the next guy and maybe even a little bit more, and I’ve been on my fair share of bad roads, mountain roads, coastal roads, and valley roads, but has anyone noticed how many of these dangerous highways are basically one-lane nightmares at extreme elevation? Maybe everybody should just live down in the plains where we can drag race all day with no worries about hairpin turns on a cliff… Anyway, the Karakoram suffers from perpetual landslides and mountain-stream flooding, so at least it’s an exciting drive, right?
2 Jalalabad To Kabul Road, Afghanistan
It was hard not to put this road at the head of our list since I’m about to invoke that dreaded name, “The Taliban.” Yup, that’s right—if you want to travel to Kabul ( or Jalalabad, I guess, but I don’t think even the Afghans want to go in that direction) you’ll have to cross a 100-mile section of road where those guys still reign supreme. That’s what happens when you cut a road through some high mountain passes where Muslim fundamentalists tend to congregate. However, the infamous Highway 1 also winds its way through almost 2,000 feet of steep inclines and the resulting downgrades. Hey, just in case you were thinking this road ain’t much of a much (screw the Taliban, right?), just remember that you’ll be sharing it with some insanely overloaded 18-wheelers and a whole bunch of aggressive Afghani drivers who really don’t mind if they go to the promised land at your expense, if you know what I mean.
1 Road of Death, Bolivia
Hey, look—another “Road of Death!” It’s a good thing we’re talking about the most dangerous roads in the world or I’d be a little bit freaked out. So anyway, our final entry, officially known as "Old Yungas Road," is a mountain road outside of La Paz that was once called the “most dangerous road in the world” by the Inter-American Development Bank, whoever the hell that is. When you’re talking about a road that boasts 300 fatalities a year, you know you’re talking some seriously bad sh*t. Most of the issues are related to the fact that the road drops in elevation roughly 8,000 feet in about 30 miles—that’s some serious downgrade, folks, and the Bolivians aren’t real big on switchbacks either. This road is actually an “adventure” trip for serious cyclists from around the world who like to challenge themselves on its steep declines, but since it’s also home to a ton of buses and tractor trailers at all hours of the day, I myself am going to pass on that particular “experience.”