Awareness of Off-Road Driving Ban Lacking in Iceland

Off-road driving marks in the Central Highland

Three Italian tourists have pleaded guilty to off-road driving in Iceland’s Central Highland, north of Vatnajökull glacier. Off-road driving is illegal in Iceland and those who are caught must pay hefty fines. The director of the Travel Association of Fljótsdalshérað, East Iceland, says more must be done to ensure foreign tourists are aware of the ban.

Þórhallur Þorsteinsson has been working in tourism in East Iceland for decades. He posted pictures of the damage done by the three Italians on his Facebook page, calling the deep tire tracks among the worst he’s ever seen.

Þórhallur told Vísir he’s tired of seeing such damage and says tourism operators and the government must do more to get the message across that off-road driving is illegal in Iceland. Smyril Line, which operates the ferry between mainland Europe and Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland, as well as car rental companies, the Environment Ministry, and the municipality of Múlaþing, East Iceland, are a few of the parties Þórhallur mentioned as bearing the responsibility to educate tourists on the fragile environment they are visiting in Iceland, that takes decades to recover from damage caused by off-road driving.

When tourists lack awareness of the off-road driving ban, damage can lead to even more damage. “Then tourists come and see an old circle made off-road. Then they take a spin themselves; think about doing it themselves. ‘Why not me?’” Þórhallur explains.

In addition to tourism operators and local authorities, Þórhallur says the Icelandic government bears the largest responsibility to ensure off-road driving does not happen.

The three Italian tourists have been fined several hundred thousand Icelandic krónur, or thousands of euros, for the offence.

Authorities Look to Raise Fines for Off-Road Driving

The best weapon in the fight against off-road driving is education, according to Minister for the Environment, Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson. He says more people are conscious of the damage caused by off-road driving and wants to look into raising fines.
Evidence of off-road driving can take a long time to disappear naturally. Nature lovers have resorted to fixing damage where they can but if the vegetation is damaged, that can be impossible to fix. Off-road driving is a growing problem in Iceland, as travellers disregard laws. Recently, a Russian social media influencer bragged about his off-road driving. He was prosecuted, however, and had to pay a hefty fine.

This summer, damages have been discovered when mountain roads were opened again for the season. Recently, the Environment agency reported off-road driving in the geothermal area by Sogin in the Reykjanes nature reserve to the police but the tracks will be wiped out in the next few days.
Government agencies put a lot of work into stopping off-road driving, according to Guðmundur Ingi. “I believe education is our main weapon when it comes to off-road driving. But there are also rules and the nature conservation law states that off-road driving is subject to fines, and also that vehicles can be impounded and offenders can even face jail time.”

The police consider every individual case. The minimum fine for off-road driving is 350,000 ISK (€2,477, $2,781) and fines higher than that amount are often issued. “I believe that the basis of the rules is good. It may be that we should raise the fines, and that’s something which I’m very ready to inspect,” minister Guðmundur continued.

The task of educating drivers is mostly handled by rangers. 200 million ISK (€1.4m, $1.58m) were added to the budget for land protection this year, and an extra 300 million ISK (€2.11m, $2.37m) of funds will go towards the cause next year.

Authorities charged individuals for 40 instances of off-road driving in 2018. “Truth be told, the overall management of this matter has improved in the last 5 or 10 years. Both the police along with search and rescue squads, which have started to be more prevalent in the highlands. So rangers, search and rescue teams, and the police are collaborating well in this field. It’s an infinite task which we will just have to continue to fight,” Guðmundur said.

Head to the website of the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration, www.road.is, for further information on road conditions and what is considered off-road driving.

Locals Repair Off-Roading Damage by Mývatn

Extensive damage left by a tourist’s off-road driving in North Iceland was repaired yesterday by the members of a local 4×4 association. Volunteers from Ferðaklúbburinn 4×4’s Eyjafjörður division repaired the deep tyre tracks left near Mývatn, North Iceland by a Russian Instagram influencer who bragged about the incident.

The repairs were carried out in collaboration with the landowners, who were very grateful to the club members for their help. They showed their thanks by treating the volunteers to a trip to Mývatn Nature Baths. “It’s safe to say that everyone was left satisfied after this job well done,” says a notice on the club’s online forum.

Russian Instagram influencer Alexander Tikhomirov sparked outrage among local and foreign nature-lovers when he posted pictures of himself on social media three days ago, posing and smiling at the scene of the crime with the caption “Congratulations, today I got a big fine.” Off-road driving is illegal in Iceland, as the sub-arctic landscape is fragile and takes decades to recover from damage. Tikhomirov paid an ISK 450,000 ($3,600/€3,200) fine for the incident.

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Brags About Off-Road Driving on Instagram

“Congratulations, today I got a big fine,” reads the caption of Alexander Tikhomirov’s Instagram post showing his jeep stuck in the clay in North Iceland. The Russian man shared pictures of himself posing and smiling in front of the vehicle after he was fined for illegal off-road driving near Mývatn. Mbl.is reported first.

Icelanders have expressed outrage at Tikhomirov’s apparent lack of respect for Iceland’s fragile nature as well as its laws. “Please never return to Iceland,” one comment on the post reads. Another user writes: “This is incredibly disrespectful, after you got fined by the police for banned offroad driving you pose by the rental car at the scene. Shame on you.”

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Off-road driving is illegal in Iceland, as the sub-arctic landscape is easily damaged and takes decades to recover. Witnesses who saw the incident take place yesterday notified Northeast Iceland Police. Officers completed an investigation before Tikhomirov’s vehicle was towed out of the soft clay-rich soil where it had gotten stuck. Tikhomirov paid an ISK 450,000 ($3,600/€3,200) fine for the incident this morning in Akureyri.

The Instagram personality seems to have little understanding of locals’ reactions. He shared some comments criticising him in an Instagram story yesterday, writing “why you guys so angry.” Tikhomorov’s account, which shares photos of travel destinations and scantily-clad women, has over 300,000 followers.

Off-road Driving Tracks in Fjallabak Nature Reserve

Off-road tracks in the Fjallabak nature reserve

When Environment Agency rangers returned to their posts in Iceland’s mountainous interior this spring, they were met with an ugly sight, off-road driving tracks in the delicate flora of the Fjallabak nature reserve.

Spring has sprung early this year and mountain roads were opened earlier than usual. When Environment Agency’s staff inspected the nature reserve, they saw several tracks in the moss, evidence of illegal off-road driving.

The negative impact of off-road driving is multi-faceted, not only are the tracks starkly visible in the otherwise untouched nature, but the tracks and wounds in the turf can take decades to heal. The tracks also create choice conditions for water erosion, soil erosion caused by running water. Last but not least, the visible effects of careless drivers spoil the experience of the wilderness for other visitors.

The Environment Agency has spent considerable effort to stem the tide of off-road driving and has had some success. The tourism industry, as well as the public, are aware of how serious this is and take part in stopping and alerting authorities to illegal off-road driving . The rangers are only active for 3-4 months over the summer, however, and tourists visit the mountains all year round. Much of the rangers’ time over the summer is spent inspecting and correcting wounds from off-road driving, but few drivers are caught in the act. Off-road driving is illegal and off-road drivers can expect to pay heavy fines.

According to the Environment Agency, it’s important to further strengthen education about the negative impact of off-road driving in order to reach travellers before they set off into Iceland’s nature.

Off-road tracks in the Fjallabak nature reserve.
[/media-credit] Off-road tracks in the Fjallabak nature reserve.

Motorcyclists Fined for Off-Roading in National Park

Four French tourists were fined a combined ISK 400,000 [$3,575; €3,092], after driving their 4WD-equipped motorcycles off-road within the Vatnajökull National Park on Friday, RÚV reports.

The incident took place not far from the Herðubreið tuya volcano in the highlands, to the east of the Askja caldera; the motorcycles left deep tire tracks in their wake. After being detained by Vatnajökull National Park rangers, the tourists owned up to their offense. According to an announcement posted about the incident on Facebook by authorities in Northeast Iceland, the tourists were asked to report to the police station in Akureyri two days later, which they did. They were then each fined ISK 100,000 each.

Illegal off-road driving is becoming an increasing problem in Iceland. There were, for instance, ten off-road driving citations issued between early June and mid-July this year, and, most recently, a group of 25 tourists were fined ISK 1.4 million [$13,000;€11,000] for off-road driving by Jökulsá river and in a protected area by Grafalönd on the road to Askja caldera—not far from where the French tourists were detained on Friday.

The increasing frequency of these incidents has lead some to call for the implementation of a new highlands driving permit, while others—such as Stefanía Ragnarsdóttir, a Vatnajökull National Park ranger—says it should be possible to better inform travellers of driving laws and their environmental responsibility. “I mean we are living on an island,” she remarked after the incident with the 25 tourists in late August. “You come here by boat or plane so it should be possible to reach you and this is a lot of responsibility that we need to take on much better. This maybe lies most with car rental companies. They need to really step up.”

Calls For A Highlands Driving Permit

Páll Jónsson, a guide and a policeman, suggest putting a stop to illegal off-road driving by issuing a special highland driving license, RÚV reports. Páll asserts that authorities are not doing enough to stop off-road driving in the highlands, which is extremely damaging to nature. Not only are the tracks an eyesore, but they can lead to environmental destruction as off-road driving can lead to destruction of land and soil erosion.

Páll suggests that the whole of the highlands be turned into a national park, and that those who wish to travel there obtain a special driving license. The eager travellers would have to watch an instructional video and pay a fee of 5000 krónur for the special highland driving permit.

Off road driving has been increasingly reported this summer, with 10 incidents alone reported in June. Many incidents go unreported, however, and authorities have stipulated heavy fines for violators.

“For me personally, it hurts to go to Landmannalaugar in its current state – in this beautiful landscape it hurts to see how things have become. And once you enter Skeiðarársandur, everything has been driven over. I can’t remember the conditions being worse than now, alongside the road”, Páll commented.

Páll asserts that Icelanders are somewhat lost when it comes to preventing off-road driving. “We put some stickers into the rental cars and, sometimes, we have staff ask the drivers to not drive off-road. This is nonsense and it clearly doesn’t work”.

His plans account for aspiring highland drivers to sit through a 15-minute long instructional video, if they wish to rent a car and intend to go to the highlands. The video would have a national park ranger and a police offer explain the rules of highland driving to travellers. Once travellers have sat through the video they would pay the one time fee, which would then be fed back into the system to pay for policing the highland area, rescue team services, national park rangers, and even public toilets.

“The current system is not enough. It’s been tried and tested and it doesn’t work”, Páll finally stated.

Fined 1.4 Million for Off-Road Driving

A group of 25 foreign tourists were fined ISK 1.4 million ($13,000/€11,000) for off-road driving by Jökulsá river and in a protected area by Grafalönd on the road to Askja caldera, RÚV reports. On one of the sites, damage covers an area of six hectares (15 acres). Authorities say it will take years for the marks to fade.

Off-road driving is illegal in Iceland due to the fragility of the sub-arctic environment. Nevertheless, many off-road driving incidents have been reported this summer.

Stefanía Ragnarsdóttir, a land warden in Vatnajökull National Park, says it should be possible to better inform travellers of driving laws and their environmental responsibility. “I mean we are living on an island. You come here by boat or plane so it should be possible to reach you and this is a lot of responsibility that we need to take on much better,” Stefanía remarked. “This maybe lies most with car rental companies. They need to really step up.”

Report Own Customer for Off-Road Driving

Camping Cars has reported one of their own customers for off-road driving to the police, RÚV reports. The camper van rental company decided to take the action after pictures of their customers driving and camping on the outwash plain Skeiðarársandur in South Iceland appeared on social media.

Bogi Jónsson, CEO of the company, commented on the post which appeared in Facebook group Bakland ferðaþjónustunnar (Behind the Tourism Industry), writing “this is unacceptable behaviour as we spend a lot of time with each customer to prevent such behaviour. We will file a complaint with the police ourselves.”

Bogi told RÚV it was unfortunate to have to take the action, adding that the customer did not respond well when informed of the company’s decision to do so. Camping Cars employees spend a lot of time explaining to customers what is and is not allowed in Iceland, “and it would be void if we didn’t respond to such situations,” Bogi stated.

All off-road driving is illegal in Iceland due to the fragile sub-arctic environment. This summer alone, the Environment Agency of Iceland has reported 10 cases of off-road driving. One group of French tourists were fined ISK 400,000 for the activity last month.

Ten Off-Road Driving Incidents Since June

The Environment Agency of Iceland has reported ten incidents of illegal, off-road driving since the beginning of June, RÚV reports. Division Head Ólafur A. Jónsson says there’s a need to better educate the public—and particularly visiting travelers—about areas in the countryside where people are not permitted to drive as many off-roading violations are, he says, inadvertent.

The ten incidents have taken place in the South and the Southern Highlands: two at Dýrhólaey promontory on the south coast, one at the Kerlingarfjöll mountain range in the highlands, and seven in the Fjallabak nature reserve. The damage done to the landscape was significant enough in these incidents to report them to the police.

Although Ólafur says there was not a cumulative increase in these incidents as of the end of last year, his office is, nevertheless, in almost daily contact with the police about similar issues and says that his office is still working on raising public awareness about the fragility of Iceland’s natural landscapes. To this end, the Environment Agency has begun collaborating with Search and Rescue on matters related to land protection and new educational materials distributed to tourists. They are also preparing a database which will chart all of the roads in Iceland that it is permissible for people to drive on. “In most cases, you want to think these were unintentional acts,” he says, “that people didn’t mean to do any damage, had thought it was permitted [to drive off-road] or something like that.”

Intentional or not, Ólafur believes that fines are important in the event of serious damage being done to the landscape. Only a few days ago, French tourists driving two jeeps were fined ISK 200,000 ($1,900/€1,600) each for off-road driving near Kerlingarfjöll mountain range. The travellers called for help when they got their cars stuck in mud near the mountain Loðmundur. The area has been closed to vehicles due to wet conditions. The individuals’ driving damaged vegetation and soil in the area. The two individuals were questioned at the police station in Selfoss, South Iceland, where they paid the fine.

“I think that everyone who comes [into a protected area] needs to pay a fine to the police,” he said. “When you get up to amounts like that, I think it’s really important.”