Science’s disappointing failure to develop cheap jetpack or hovercar technology means that for the foreseeable future, we’re all probably stuck driving regular old cars along regular old streets. This would be fine if we all lived in places with safely designed and properly maintained streets. The 10 stretches of gravel and dirt we’re looking at today are dangerous and inconvenient enough to earn the label the world’s worst roads.
ZOGU I ZI TRAFFIC CIRCLE
The Albanian capital of Tirana is already known for bad roads and worse traffic, but the oversized roundabout known as Zogu I Zi is popularly regarded as the worst in the city, if not the entire country.
Once so pitted with potholes that it barely constituted a road, a major rebuilding project sought to make it a less nightmarish affair, but a budget fight between Tirana’s mayor and the national government meant that the Blackbird was stalled for years in various degrees of being finished. While the road was finally resurfaced the circle remains described primarily as “chaotic.”
SKIPPERS CANYON ROAD
The scenic 22-mile gorge north of Queenstown known as Skippers Canyon is one of New Zealand’s most unique tourist attractions, if only for how likely the experience is to kill you.
After prospectors discovered gold high up the Shotover River, a narrow winding road was built to supply and maintain mining operations. After seven years of harrowing work, the road was completed at great expense.
A popular saying of the time was that no matter how much gold was taken out of Skippers Canyon, it would never be enough to actually pay off the road itself.
The road down the canyon is so dangerous and difficult to maintain that a special permit has to be applied for before a standard car can be driven on it, and there are special restrictions on how much time anyone can spend on the crumbly gravel trail.
FEDERAL HIGHWAY M56
A standing joke among Russian drivers is that the appalling state of their country’s roads is a leftover defensive measure designed to prevent another German invasion. While the M56 Federal Highway between Moscow and Yakutsk is running in the wrong direction to slow down an armored European offensive against the capital, drivers can expect to meet two heroes of the Great Patriotic War in the form of “General Mud” and “Marshal Winter.”
Freezing temperatures, blinding snowstorms, and few-and-far-between service stations make the M56 a very bad place to be caught out in the cold. While the rainy spring and summer months turn the largely gravel/dirt road into a vast swamp littered with immobile cars and trucks, easy prey to bands of mud pirates, because naturally the rural Russian countryside is littered with bands of mud pirates.
FAIRY MEADOWS ROAD
Discovered (or at least first named) by Austrian climber Hermann Buhl in 1953, “Fairy Meadows” is a forested plateau some 3300 meters above sea level offering campsites, cottages, and even a hotel.
Getting there, however, requires some skillful driving along single-lane roads lacking guardrails on surfaces so uneven and unfinished that in most cases the final stretch has to be covered on foot or bicycle.
The road is often referred to as “The Way to Fairy Meadows,” - a designation that makes a certain bit of sense when you remember that in early myth fairies were less about pixie dusts and magic wands and more about capricious and unpredictable killing.
SUNSET BOULEVARD, CIRCA 1960
One of the first stretches of road to earn the nickname “dead man’s curve” for its inherently dangerous design was a stretch of LA’s Sunset Boulevard just past North Whittier Drive, officially dubbed as such by the LA Times in a 1959 article on a fatal street race.
A deceptively sharp s-turn where speeders could and did easily slip into the oncoming lane, the original Dead Man’s Curve was immortalized in a song of the same name by surf-rock duo Jan and Dean shortly after famous voice actor Mel Blanc suffered a near-fatal accident there.
Having nearly killed the voice of Bugs Bunny and looking at the possibility of a hit song about how bad LA was at urban planning, the city finally remodeled the curve shortly before the song’s debut.
The new curve is considered far less dangerous, although ironically Jan Berry was involved in a near-fatal accident of his own just a few years after the song’s release.
THE CLEVELAND INNERBELT CURVE
Constructed in 1959 as a way to merge the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway to the Innerbelt Freeway, the Innerbelt Curve was not built to federal standards, as doing so would apparently cost too much time and money.
Engineers instead designed a nearly ninety-degree flat curve and plopped it down on the freeway without any sort of speed limit change or even a warning sign, yet were oddly surprised when the turn took dozens of unsuspecting motorists by surprise.
Efforts were made to de-lethalize the Curve first by abruptly lowering the speed limit from 50 to 35 and eventually by rebuilding the freeway as a banked curve.
The stretch of road, however, is still two to three times more dangerous than anywhere else in the Innerbelt system, particularly for out-of-state truck drivers, few of which anticipate a 90-degree banked curve in the middle of the highway and many of whom end up overturning.
Despite well-maintained roads and far fewer mohawked motorcycle barbarians than is generally portrayed in the media, Australia can be a dangerous place to drive. While most famously dangerous roads are the result of sudden turns, winding paths, or dangerous inclines, South Australia’s Eyre Highway is deadly because of its incredible boringness.
One of the longest and straightest routes in the world, the Eyre spans the near-featureless Nullarbor Plain and the lack of any sort of visual stimulation has lead to numerous cases of “highway hypnosis,” where semi-conscious drivers drift off the road or into oncoming traffic.
Adding to the threat are the presence of “road trains,” trucks towing three to four trailers whose passage can blow wary drivers right off the road with their wind blast.
Another fatal freeway fragment, Covington, Kentucky’s “Cut-in-the-Hill” may not look as pointlessly dangerous as the nearby Innerbelt Curve, but in the four years after it opened in 1962 more than twenty people had died on a mile-long stretch of Interstate 75.
Fatalities were reduced with the installation of a concrete wall between north and south-bound traffic, but the central problem remained...
Northbound drivers faced an unusually sharp left turn just as the road entered a steep grade. A particularly nasty and fatal tractor-trailer accident in 1986 lead to a ban on most truck traffic in the northbound lane that lasted almost ten years.
During this time, the s-curve was straightened out, numerous flashing grade warnings were posted, radar-equipped speed signs were set up, and a Kentucky State Trooper assigned specifically to the area.
Cut-in-the-Hill today is considerably safer than it was 35 years ago, but it currently carries almost twice the amount of traffic it was originally designed for and state legislators have yet to raise enough funds for a replacement.
China has one of the highest rates of traffic accidents in the world, often blamed on the tens of thousands of new and inexperienced drivers that enter traffic every day. Paradoxically some of the worst accident rates and fatalities occur in the country’s least populated areas.
Official statistics are hard to come by, but it’s believed that the stretch of China National Highway 318 between Chengdu (in Sichuan province) and Lhasa (in Tibet) is responsible for a stunning number of deaths.
For most of its length, the Sichuan-Tibet highway is poorly paved and often frozen, guardrails typically consist of nothing more than multicolored prayer flags marking the edge of a lethal drop, and rockslides can shut the road down for days at a time, stranding travelers in the bitter cold far from shelter.
Next: The Worst Sunburns Ever
NORTH YUNGAS ROAD
Bolivia offers a number of different ways to die, but among the most famous and scenic is to take a trip between Coroico and the capital of La Paz along what is popularly named “The Road of Death.”
Constructed by Paraguayan POWs during the Chaco War of the 1930s, the road was, and still is, exactly what you might expect a bunch of angry, malnourished prisoners to construct with cheap tools and faulty equipment.
While the Bolivian government spent twenty years attempting to modernize the route, it was still believed to claim between one and two hundred lives a year, including a single bus crash in 1983 that killed 100 passengers at once.
Today, traffic typically tries to approach on the safer southern route, but thrill-seeking mountain bikers and bus tours still frequent the North Yungas.