Along with economic prosperity, the unprecedented growth of Iceland’s tourism sector over the past two decades has plainly brought a variety of problems that could have serious repercussions if left unattended. While these problems differ in scope and nature, a great many are tied in to Iceland’s infrastructure, which was never intended to serve the sheer amount of humans it is now subject to on a daily basis.
5 STEPS TO BASIC ROAD SAFETY IN ICELAND
1. SAFETY: If you are driving in Iceland, in the winter especially, visit www.safetravel.is, run by the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue, before you leave. It has a helpful pop-up message on the home page indicating any current danger situations.
2. WEATHER: For constantly updated weather information in English, visit www.en.vedur.is.
3. ROADS & GPS: Road.is is where you check the conditions of the roads. It is complete with maps and webcams of the roads. Do this on any day before you travel to see if specific roads are driveable or dangerous. You can also call their hotline, 1777, for information. Use this information to plan your journey, especially on bad weather days. Do not rely solely on your GPS application to plan your route.
4. VEHICLE BASICS: Ensure your car is equipped with proper tires for the winter. Spikes are preferable if you are an inexperienced winter driver, and essential if you’ll be driving outside the city. Not all rental agencies equip cars as standard with these—you may need to request them. Make sure your car has appropriate height clearance (from the ground to the base of the car) for where you are driving. Know the controls if you are driving a 4×4.
5. EMERGENCY: Download the 112 Iceland phone app, which is designed to register your travel plan before you go with the emergency services, and serve as a tracking and rescue tool in case of emergencies. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.
A fine case in point is Iceland’s road system. Recent incidents have served to highlight some fairly pressing problems caused, for instance, by rising traffic volumes on rural roads, and an increasing number of motorists that are unfamiliar with local conditions. There are several examples of tourists ending up on roads that are closed, because they either do not see or heed the signs posted, and are often driving vehicles that are unsuitable for area conditions. Such incidents have at times resulted in tragedy, but more commonly they cause a nuisance, with Iceland’s fabled rescue squads regularly tasked with venturing out into the country to assist hapless tourists whose car got stuck in a pile of snow—like a sort of volunteer AAA.
It is easy to attribute such incidents to tourists’ carelessness or ignorance, and this remains a common narrative in Icelandic discourse. However, a closer look easily reveals that there are several other factors at play, as I have experienced first-hand. If we are indeed serious about solving this problem, we need to look further, dig deeper and realize its full extent. To that end, I spoke with representatives from five Icelandic agencies whose work touches upon the issue, hoping their answers and information might help me sketch a holistic picture of the problem and, perhaps, offer a solution.
IT’S A CULTURAL THING
To any non-Icelandic speaker who’s rented a car in Iceland, it is immediately evident that at least part of the problem stems from the fact that predominant car rental agency culture takes local experience for granted when doing business with inexperienced tourists. It is true that tourists have a responsibility to inform themselves; however, Icelandic conditions are so unlike anything that most will have experienced that they often do not know enough to know which questions to ask. This “hands off” car rental culture is something The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (IRCA) and rescue teams are pushing to change.
To be clear, this culture isn’t prevalent at every Icelandic rental car agency, but it’s still common enough to contribute to a problem. According to the Icelandic Transportation Authority (ICETRA), there are presently 103 rental car agencies in Reykjavík and 31 in Keflavík. Þór Þorsteinsson, Chair of the Rescue Squad OK (RSO), told me that getting important information to tourists was a difficult task. “Not only should they [rental car agencies] help people choose the right vehicle, but also they should guide them on how to gather information about road closings, weather conditions and forecasts.” Speaking of winter rentals, he said: “It is irresponsible [of rental car agencies] to send tourists out into the countryside in a Yaris.”
WE WEREN’T EXPECTING YOU
When asked, Jónas Guðmundsson, of the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR), concurs with Þór’s points. According to Jónas, the road system’s administration and infrastructure is at present really only set up to serve the Icelandic population.
Þór and Jónas both agree that the sign posting could be better. As a case in point, Þór offers the story of a Frenchman he had to rescue who, upon coming across an Icelandic-language sign for “Impassable” (“Ófært”) assumed the word meant something similar to “Ouvert”—French for “Open”—proceeded, and promptly got stuck. The IRCA, ICESAR, and the RSO all explained that as additional safety precautions, they have been pushing to install access gates on as many as 40 roads at a cost of around 700,000 ISK per gate (USD $5300), primarily to prevent tourists from attempting to drive roads that have been closed due to extreme weather conditions. If only tourists were better informed at the point of rental, they would know how critical it is to check resources such as vedur.is and road.is for weather and road conditions.
GOOGLE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND
According to Þór and Jónas, GPS navigation systems are also a common, easily avoidable cause of tourists getting stuck on roads they shouldn’t be on in the first place. In Iceland, Google Maps does not at present offer any updated road information, which means its suggested routes could easily lead you onto a road that is dangerous or closed without warning, especially outside of Reykjavík in the wintertime.
Even though Google doesn’t bother including updated information on road conditions in Iceland, this doesn’t mean such information isn’t easily attainable. As the IRCA’s Pétur Matthíasson notes, travelers should be sure to check their website, rwww.road.is, at least twice a day before travelling in Iceland by car, especially during wintertime, and plan trips accordingly. The maps on that site are constantly updated, offering information on which roads are open, which are dangerous, and which are closed.
THE IDEAL POSITION
Prompted by the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF), the IRCA meets twice a year with Iceland’s bigger rental agencies to discuss these and other issues. Outside those meetings, the SAF interacts with the rental agencies on behalf of IRCA, relaying the road administration’s will and wishes.
Speaking with Pétur, I was surprised to learn that the IRCA has actually published a document, in cooperation with several other agencies, detailing “how different it is to drive in Iceland.” While they request that rental agencies place the potentially life-saving document across the steering wheel of any vehicle they rent out, the IRCA is powerless to enforce its distribution, as it is an advisory precaution, rather than a law.
Reflecting on this situation, Pétur repeated Þór’s sentiment almost exactly, “It’s very difficult to get information to tourists by ordinary means.” But aren’t local car rentals in an ideal position to do just that? Yes, of course they are. However, the prevalent attitude within many local car rentals is strictly hands-off. When asked, Þór and Jónas both agree that this attitude isn’t helping anyone—least of all the customer, onto whom the end cost is passed by way of accidents, emergencies, insurance premiums, and rental cost increases.
A CASE STUDY
Normally I wouldn’t lean on a rental agency to advise clients on car choice, because usually, roads are roads. But this is Iceland.
I emailed the long-term rental department of Hertz Iceland, explaining that I would be living in the countryside, in Grímsnes, over the winter, and that my landlord that told me that the area required a 4×4 with studs. I knew nothing of Icelandic winters in the countryside. For the past fifteen years I’ve lived in London, where we get snow so rarely that it’s considered a blessing.
We discussed two 4×4 options, the Skoda Octavia and the Toyota RAV4. They offered no information about the cars, other than the features I asked about. The Skoda had better gas mileage, so I opted for that. The Skoda is powerful and solidly built, a good car. However, as I would find out, with a ground clearance of just 15.5 cm, it is far from suited to a winter in Grímsnes. It may be a 4×4, but it’s still basically a sedan.
To make an incredibly long story short, I got stuck on the track to my home on a day of hurricane-force winds, shoveling snow from under the Skoda in my snowsuit. Later, when recounting this story to a local friend, he asked if the traction control had been on or off when I was driving in the snow. I had no idea what he was talking about. Hertz had neglected to tell me about the button on the front panel which operates the traction control system. By default, it is on; however, it needs to be switched off when driving in deep snow.
When I called to change cars I explained the situation to the manager at Hertz. He told me that it isn’t company policy to advise clients choosing rental cars. He expressed regret about their failure to inform me of the traction control but we arrived at no feasible solution. The only other 4×4 on offer had a clearance of only 16cm. He did offer me a Land Rover, but at over twice the cost it simply wasn’t an option. I wound up finding a solution at Cheap Jeep, who have a selection of older powerful Jeeps for the worst of the winter.
At present, there’s no “seal of approval”-type certification issued by agencies like IRCA, ICETRA, the SAF, or the body which licenses rental car agencies—but that sure seems like a good idea. Perhaps a third party could create a rating system?
Beyond such measures, it seems obvious that car rentals should be mandated by law to issue their customers a compendium of clear, concise information detailing all the essentials of driving in Iceland. Stuff like: how often and where to check weather and road conditions, and why they should avoid relying on Google Maps or GPS.
Someone, perhaps IRCA, could develop an Iceland-specific GPS app using information feeds from road.is and Google Maps’ APIs, to make tourists aware of dangers and closures, rerouting them towards a safe passage when necessary (another option would be to petition Google to incorporate road condition updates in their Maps app). Such an app would never be failsafe, and should not replace the proposed gates, but it will nonetheless be of great use and promote safety at a comparatively negligible cost (an app costs an estimated 2-10 million ISK to develop, depending on complexity).
All of the steps I’ve outlined would serve to actively promote road safety, with relative ease and at little cost.
If tourists’ own reckless ignorance were really to blame for the majority of their traffic mishaps, shouldn’t Icelanders feel obligated to offer them the information and resources necessary to inform themselves?