Danger Zone: The World’s Deadliest Roads

Our top highways where danger is an integral part of the journey.  
Zoji La India
Mistimed braking and speeding on the Zoji La stretch of the Uri-Srinagar-Leh highway can send a vehicle hurtling to the bottom of the valley. Photo: Sergio Ballivian/Dinodia

From cobbled paths that could barely handle a few cars to roads that accommodate thousands of vehicles each day, the last century has seen an exponential increase in the number of highways across the world. They have made travelling faster and easier. However, there are many landscapes across the world that modern technology still hasn’t tamed. The paths to these retain an element of risk and leave drivers with very little margin for error. Here is a list of five such roads where danger is an integral part of the journey.

Zoji La, India

Although the Zoji La stretch of the Uri-Srinagar-Leh highway in Jammu & Kashmir is a national highway, large parts of it wouldn’t even qualify as a rural road. Most of this high-altitude highway (around 3,500 metres) clings to a mountain face, and has steep slopes and blind curves, along with long stretches of mud and gravel. There is also the threat of occasional landslides, and large boulders often block parts of the highway. The Zoji La section is extremely slippery in places, and mistimed braking and speeding can send a vehicle to the bottom of the deep valley. The landscape is rugged and almost barren, but its stark, breathtaking beauty attracts many thrill-seekers looking for an adrenaline-pumping drive. The pass is closed for four months (November to April) during the peak of winter.

Stelvio Pass, Italy

Stelvio Pass Italy

With 60 hairpin turns, Stelvio Pass seems built for a Hollywood car chase. Photo: Norbert Eisele-Hein/ Imagebroker/ Dinodia

Stelvio Pass has 60 hairpin turns, numerous tunnels, narrow lanes, and steep inclines that seem custom-built for a car chase in a Hollywood heist film. The second-highest pass in the Alps, it is located near the Swiss border at an altitude of 2,757 metres. The road connects the northern Italian towns of Valtellina and Merano. It snakes along the eastern Alps, passing stark cliffs, snow-capped peaks, and alpine forests. However, admiring the view isn’t an option as even a momentary lapse of concentration can cause cars to go over the cliff. There are long, narrow sections with numerous blind turns. Drivers often swerve out of control trying to avoid bikers and cyclists. However, recent measures like better signage, road widening (and regular traffic jams) have made the stretch safer.

Trollstigen, Norway

With landslides, wet surfaces, and deceptively steep inclines, Trollstigen is a road that demands a driver’s complete, undivided attention. Built in 1938, it connects the town of Åndalsnes to the village of Valldal in central Norway. According to Norwegian folktales, the area is populated by trolls who walk on the mountains and turn into boulders the moment they are hit by sunlight. The road, literally “troll’s ladder” in Norwegian, has 11 hairpin bends, and long patches that are extremely narrow. Cars often have to stop on the edge to let oncoming traffic pass. There is also the difficulty posed by rainfall, fog, and high winds, making this one of the toughest roads in the world to drive on. Vehicles longer than 12.4 metres or an average multi-axle bus, aren’t allowed on the road as they would not be able to make the turns. Despite the challenges that the road poses, it is very popular among locals and tourists as it passes along steep mountains, fertile valleys, deep fjords, and waterfalls.

James Dalton Highway, Alaska

Driving to the ends of the earth acquires special meaning on the James Dalton Highway. The road connects Fairbanks in southern Alaska to Deadhorse, one of the northernmost settlements of the North American continent. Large stretches of the road are unpaved and covered in gravel that often cause drivers to lose control. Semi-trailer trucks are the biggest threat to drivers on this highway. Most of them take a long time to slow down, making it imperative for drivers to get out of their path as soon as they spot them. In the six months of the Alaskan winter, the problem is compounded by snow and ice, making the highway even more difficult to navigate. Vehicles have been known to skid off the highway at low speeds, and trucks often end up sliding down uncontrollably on the numerous slopes along the way. As the road winds through the frozen tundra, polar bear, fox, caribou, and other animals can be spotted off the highway.

James Dalton Highway Alaska

During the Alaskan winter, vehicles can skid off the highway at low speeds. Photo: Rolf Hicker/All Canada Photos/ Corbis/Imagelibrary

La Carretera de los Yungas Bolivia Death Road

La Carretera de los Yungas is locally known as “Death Road”. Photo: Blaine Harrington III/Corbis/Imagelibrary/Death Road


La Carretera de los Yungas, Bolivia

Carved into steep mountain sides, La Carretera de los Yungas, or the Yungas Road, runs along vertical drops of hundreds of metres. The road connects the Bolivian capital La Paz with the town of Coroico in the northwest part of the country. It was built by Paraguayan prisoners of war in the 1930s, many of whom died during its construction. Like most mountain roads, the stretch is full of S-curves, blind turns, and steep slopes. There is the added peril of rain, fog, and landslides. But what makes the route really treacherous is the road itself, which is less that ten feet wide. The number of accidents here have earned it the sobriquet “Death Road”. Strangely, its infamy attracts many tourists and has made the road one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations.

Appeared in the September 2014 issue as “Rocky Road”.

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    Tushar Abhichandani is a freelance journalist, struggling stand-up comedian, and former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. He prefers travelling to places that are devoid of hipsters.

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