Wheels by Quentin Bates

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I took my first driving test in a regional Icelandic town in about 1980, 350 kilometres from the nearest roundabouts and traffic lights, and with three inches of snow on the ground that was four inches by the end of the test. I didn’t even get as far as fourth gear and the examiner was more interested in telling me about his holidays in Sherwood Forest than quizzing me on my knowledge of the highway code.

Once or twice I’ve mentioned driving in Iceland. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and I speak as one who has been through the heart-stopping experience of the Casablanca rush hour – maybe not quite at the same level as Cairo or Bangkok, but still genuinely terrifying. Driving in Iceland isn’t in that league, but it does have its own peculiarities.

Iceland is at the edge of the habitable world, which gives it its own flavour of frontier mentality, so while there’s a robust faith in the rightness of law and order, there’s also an underlying belief that rules and regulations should apply to everyone else.

Also, cars are important to Icelanders. Let’s qualify that. Cars are important the world over. Men especially often lavish far more care and attention on their treasured wheels than they’d devote to their girlfriends, wives or children. To Icelanders cars are particularly important and in a country of individualists, that frontier mentality dictates that a man’s car is his castle, and there are plenty of monster castles out there. For years there were American gas guzzlers everywhere. A friend of mine once proudly owned a down-at-heel Oldsmobile that he drove to work every day in a town you could walk the length of in a few minutes – roughly as long as it took to clear the windscreen and bonnet of snow of in the morning – but being able to drive to work was important. It’s a statement. Walking to work was the equivalent of admitting to a serious cojones shortfall.

These days it’s the ubiquitous monster 4x4s. Fair enough, there are people who travel in the highlands and those who need to get around the country in winter. But in reality a good proportion of these trucks rarely go anywhere beyond city limits but have a far more important role as urban status symbols.

There’s definitely something about big cars that appeals to Icelanders, not least because of the spend-it-now culture, a legacy of the work-hard-play-hard mentality and galloping inflation, as well as a desperate need to keep up with the neighbours that afflicts a sizable proportion of the population.

Iceland has a traffic culture all of its own. Outside the towns and onto country roads there are some respectable distances between settlements. The roads are narrow and it’s not that long since the whole of Highway 1, which runs right round the island, was finally finished in tarmac. Before that these were loose-surfaced dirt roads that were mostly the width of a car and a half. Meeting a car coming the other way in a cloud of brown dust could be a hair-raising experience as nobody wanted to sacrifice valuable milliseconds by easing off the accelerator.

Winter makes the whole thing even more of an experience when the roads are covered in snow, or better still, the layer of compacted snow that turns back to ice once there has been a brief thaw.

But it’s in town that the fun begins. Reykjavík traffic is unnerving. It’s not the speed of the traffic, but the feeling that every one of those drivers out there is in his or her own little world, entirely oblivious to what’s going on around them – possibly a result of decades of driving tests that were so easy that hardly anyone ever failed. There’s no looking from side to side, definitely no making eye contact and none of the good-natured leaving a space for someone else to join from a side road that you see elsewhere. Things like lane discipline and elementary stuff like signalling left or right are ridiculous concepts that apply only to old ladies, foreigners and country bumpkins. On any of the two-lane thoroughfares through town, look both ways, as there’s bound to be someone overtaking you on the inside, or better still, just sat there matching your speed and carefully keeping inside the blind spot.

The traffic tends to be furious and very close. A few inches from the bumper in front is pretty normal at whatever speed. The saving grace is that Reykjavík’s traffic is so heavy these days that it has become bogged down under its own weight and there’s not much chance of getting from A to B with any kind of speed. But add an unexpected sprinkling of snow to the mix, and all bets are off.

This doesn’t mean that it’s not easy to get a speeding ticket, because that’s not difficult at all these days. There are automatic cameras here and there that will ensure that you receive an expensive (although not as eye-wateringly stiff as in Norway)  ‘gladdening’ through the mail. There are areas of the countryside where it’s wise not to stray far over the 90km/h limit, as the cops in those counties really love their mobile speed cameras. Húnavatnssysla, that’s you I’m waving at.

So if you venture to Iceland and pick up a hire car at the airport, be forewarned. If you’re used to Casablanca or Saigon, you’ll probably be fine. If you hail from Tunbridge Wells, you could be in for a shock.

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