Please Don’t Banish Bumpy Roads

Candice Gaukel Andrews March 14, 2010 9
Bumpy roads force us to slow down. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Bumpy roads force us to slow down and meander. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

I like bumpy roads. Not the ones permeated with potholes big enough to break an axle or skew tires out of alignment, but the “washboard” ones that make your teeth rattle, your words vibrate and your backside tingle when you drive over them.

I like bumpy roads because they force us to slow down. Jiggling along at a clip of five to 10 miles per hour gives you license to look out the side windows once in a while, to notice not only what’s ahead of you in the future but what you’re surrounded by now. A group of physicists located at universities in Canada, France and England, however, are working on eliminating our bumpy rides. By finding out what causes washboard roads, they hope to be able to design improved vehicle suspension systems that will forever banish our slow meanderings by bus, van or car.

Speed bumps

To find out just how washboard roads are created in the first place, the physicists filled a round cylinder with sand, started spinning it and ran a rubber wheel over the surface. Within minutes, a ripple pattern appeared when the wheel moved faster than a certain threshold speed.

It turns out that soft road materials—such as sand, snow or dirt—all have subtle, uneven surfaces. When a wheel hits a tiny point of inconsistency, it pushes some of the malleable stuff past the spot, thus creating a new uneven area. As more wheels on other cars and trucks roll over the surface, they push the bumps farther along the road, and ripples and ruts grow.

According to the researchers, the “washboard effect” is mathematically similar to skipping a stone over water. A skipping stone needs to travel faster than a specific speed in order to develop enough force to be thrown off the water’s surface. The main difference between the two is that a sand, snow or dirt surface “remembers” its shape on later passes of a wheel, amplifying the effect.

The physicists found that the way to avoid creating a bumpy road was to drive very slowly. Bumps smoothed out only when the experimental wheel traveled at less than five miles per hour.

The pace of adventure

Give me a road that’s just enough of a road to get me in. ©John T. Andrews

Give me a road that’s just enough of a road to get me in. ©John T. Andrews

Perhaps five miles per hour should be the average speed for adventure. One of the bumpiest roads I ever experienced was in Patagonia. I was traveling in an eight-passenger van with a small group of people, and we were very slowly jouncing along a Chilean dirt road just before sunset. There wasn’t much cause for long gazes out the windshield, since the front vista changed only in tiny increments. But the view out the side windows was constantly evolving and revealing the country. Because of our snail’s pace, we had time to decipher a huemul hidden in the trees along the roadway and to notice a sleek shadow slink through the adjacent brush—what we guessed could have been a mountain lion. I’m convinced those sightings would have evaded us at a quicker clip.

Our Argentinean guide, worried we would get bored with our long, languid journey, popped his favorite tango CD into the van’s player. Somehow I know that listening to that music wouldn’t have been the same gliding along on a slick, smooth highway. Nothing could have reflected the passion of the tango more than the bumping, rattling and grinding of teeth we were just then undergoing.

For adventures, give me a road that’s just enough of a road to get me in. But make sure it shakes me up before I get there.

Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,



  1. Art Hardy March 19, 2010 at 5:48 am - Reply

    I guess a love of bumpy roads is made easier if you have a vehicle built for rough travel. Many times I’ve left my car at the crest of an icy logging road for fear I couldn’t get back up the hill.

  2. Nine Quiet Lessons March 17, 2010 at 6:10 am - Reply

    There’s something to be said for taking time to stop and smell the roses, though with the way infrastructure is lately, soon all the roads will be like that.

  3. John H Gaukel March 16, 2010 at 8:05 am - Reply

    I think a road that is bumpy and slow going is a road less traveled. I feel a road that is less traveled is a road that may hold more new discoveries along the way. Maybe my own new secret spot, without the crowds. That bumpy road is for me !!

  4. Pat Marron March 15, 2010 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    Some of my fondest travel memories are expeditions on bumpy roads. My favorite happened in Botswana while we were trying to track down some wild dogs. Our guide finally told us “there used to be a road here”. Priceless!

  5. Joan Campbell March 15, 2010 at 3:36 pm - Reply

    How about rutted roads? I love driving a road with ruts because it reminds me of my father. When I was a girl, my parents and I spent many summers in the Rocky Mountains, where we would often find ourselves on dirt roads heading to some dude ranch or another. My father absolutely LOVED the challenge of driving so that the wheels of our car ran just to the right or left of the ruts — and he was very good at it, too. That kind of driving, requiring constant attention and a perfect knowledge of where our tires were, would have exhausted me, but my dad would finish a few hours of grazing ruts and dodging potholes in a state of exhilaration! Driving horrendous road absolutely energized the man. Brings a smile to my face just to think of it!

  6. Sandra Drissen March 15, 2010 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    I , too, remember those bumpy roads traveling in Patagonia. We weren’t on the same trip, but it was eight in a very, very sturdy van (maybe a Mercedes so it could take the punishment…misty memory). My most recent bumpy road was in the basket of a dogsled on a “tourist” ride in the Yukon. For two hours…a few good smacks and some smooth sailing. I am for bumps.

  7. jack March 15, 2010 at 11:30 am - Reply

    At that speed, you might as well hike it.

  8. Travis March 15, 2010 at 11:29 am - Reply

    Well, it’s easier for me to bike on pavement for long distances!

    • Marg March 19, 2010 at 12:29 pm - Reply

      The bumpiest road I ever experienced was in northern Iceland, up near the Arctic Circle. I swear that the road was bumpier for those of us in the rear of the van than in the front. How else to explain the driver’s delight in hitting those bumps? We banged our heads on the roof a couple times. But you’re right, Candy. We saw a lot that we would have otherwise missed going at the more stately pace. I look forward to trying the roads in Patagonia some day.

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