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Iceland toughens up road signs to deter souvenir hunters

Some may take home an Eyjafjallajökull T-shirt, others a bracelet of lava beads. But so many visitors to Iceland have been stealing road signs as souvenirs that the North Atlantic island has been forced to take remedial action.

According to Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, a bestselling crime fiction author and official at the national Road Traffic Directorate, the new generation of Icelandic road signs have been made too heavy to carry, and using bolts “that can’t be undone with an ordinary car toolkit”.

Ingólfsson told the state broadcaster, RUV that the most popular targets were pictograms – often topped with an exclamation mark – of a kind rarely found abroad, alerting drivers to fords across rivers, single-lane bridges, blind rises with possible oncoming traffic and unmade roads.

The novelist, who designed some of them, said they were attractive to souvenir hunters because so few countries illustrate potential traffic hazards. The Vienna Road Traffic Agreement, which governs road signs, “simply can’t cope” with Iceland’s unique topography, he said.

“It’s the way our signs look,” Ingólfsson said. “In English, for example, you just have the word ‘ford’. But in Iceland we also have a picture of a car driving into water, which is more easily understood.”

Iceland, whose economy all but collapsed along with almost its entire banking sector in the 2008 financial crisis, is in the middle of an unprecedented tourist boom, with more than 1.6 million people – a 29% increase on 2015 – expected to visit its glaciers, volcanos, fjords and hot springs this year.

Pictograms were initially a solution to the problem that so few foreign visitors understood Icelandic, Ingólfsson told the broadcaster.

But there is wide resistance to any suggestions that road signs should be in English, he added, noting that many Icelanders are determined to protect a language that has hardly changed since the Norse sagas.

“We already provide translations into English of some roadside information boards, and we get complaints about it,” he said. “And anyway, not everyone here understands English.”

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