In Norway, “Speed” Isn’t What You’d Expect

Over the Speed LimitIt’s bound to happen to English speakers who get into a car and leave the Oslo city limits. (If they don’t, I’m not sure why they’re in a car to begin with; they are not likely to get far.) Sooner rather than later, they will come across a sign about speed – and they will start laughing.

The word for “speed” in Norwegian is fart.

Until the native language becomes familiar, traveling the Norwegian roads has the potential to reduce most English-speaking tourists to guilty fits of giggles. And in the wonderful manner of humankind and linguistics, one’s own language rarely strikes a person as funny, even when he knows the other’s quite well.

Hence, it may take a while for the Norwegian driver to understand his American passenger’s repeated regression to a pre-adolescent state at each written sign for a speed bump (fartsdump).

After we’ve learned more Norwegian and have chastised ourselves over our immaturity, English speakers are due another hit. I collapsed when we encountered a radar sign advising each driver of “din fart.

Norwegian Roadway

Though lanes aren’t marked, this Østfold roadway at least has a shoulder.

I also asked if 40 referred to the magnitude or the velocity, and how we measured up.

The novelty does eventually wear off (at least, until the next vacation), and other aspects of “speed” in Norway take over.  After the rather prosaic fact that 40 isn’t what you thought it was – being in kilometers per hour, and hence closer to 25 mph – an American will most likely grasp why Norwegians do not generally rocket around as we do at home.

You don’t want to try it on these roads.

In the chapter “Welfare Capitalism” of her 2010 e-book The World’s Best Place: Norway and the Norwegians, native Norwegian and longtime U.S. journalist Solveig Torvik addresses some of the conflict over infrastructure in the country – a debt-free nation that ran a 12.5 percent budget surplus in 2011 but that has only 175 miles or so of multi-lane highways. (To add a very rough perspective, Norway is a bit larger than New Mexico in land area, at 125,182 square miles. New Mexico’s multi-lane highway miles number over 2,300.) The bulk of Norway’s vehicular transportation system involves two-lane roads, with lanes marked or unmarked, a good number being so narrow as to require drivers to pull to the shoulder to let oncoming traffic get by.

Norwegian Multi-lane

Well upgraded, the E18 around Larvik in Vestfold maintains good traffic flow. (That’s kph, not mph.)

Along with many Norwegians and some foreign analysts, Torvik identifies a combination of government unwillingness to spend on nationwide infrastructure improvements and the dominance of local, short-term initiatives as the principal culprits in keeping Norway’s road network sub-par. Citing Dag Aarnes, senior economist with the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, she lifts up the example of Oslo’s E18 highway,

the worst bottleneck to movement of goods and people in the country, which greatly concerns his organization. But because it’s on Oslo’s west side, the money is not made available to fix it, Aarnes contends. Thanks to the skewed over-representation of rural areas in parliament, “No one is really representing Oslo in the parliament.”

Poking along a stretch of the southwestern E18, between Oslo and Arendal, I noted this summer that road crews had been at work there for at least three years; I had pictures from a 2009 bus ride to Kristiansand. My companion comically informed me that they had probably stopped the expansion project and moved the equipment across the country, for a project in a different politician’s district.

Road Curve Norway

On Highway 63 into Geiranger, high speed is rarely an option.

“That’s how they ‘plan’ it here,” he said wearily. “They set a limited budget annually for roadwork, and they decide each year where it will be. Nothing gets finished. The crews haul the equipment all the way to a stretch of road in Bergen, then the next year a politician in Lillehammer is in charge and and they have to haul the equipment there – and so it goes.”*

Hence, drivers in Norway will certainly spend more time than not on the narrow path. Most Philadelphia-area drivers need not even apply; I have seen how many cannot stay in the (larger) lanes on Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River, and how suburban SUV operators descend into PTSD when forced to restrict themselves to only one lane of our (normally) two-lane Center City streets. (There’s a warning in here for Norwegians driving in Philadelphia: we’re bad. Really bad.)

For American drivers, a creeping pace below 20 mph (32 kph) may feel inevitable in Norway. It does not, of course, seem so to Norwegians, accustomed as they are to the terrain and lighter traffic, and far more skillful in driving than we are. The sudden appearance of a happily cruising motorist on a turn should be anticipated – especially as the remarkable two-lane, winding roads often boast higher speed limits than the multi-lane motorways.**

Speed Camera and Sign

The all-seeing eyes of speed cameras (fotobokser) are often announced by a sign (lower right).

Speeding is taken quite seriously in Norway. The fines start at $100 for 1-5 kph over the limit, and a period of license revocation and even jail time may accompany the financial penalty, even on first offense. On more highly traveled roads, Norwegian drivers have come to expect one of the nation’s more than 300 speed cameras (fotobokser). But these do not often appear on narrower byways, and some drivers find themselves tempted to take chances on the joyride.

In the Nordland village of Utskarpen, a property owner whose land is split in half by Highway 12 decided to construct his own fotoboks scarecrow to warn motorists who got carried away by the open road. Summer drivers there may come upon the julenisse – Father Christmas himself – sitting in a lawn chair, observing whether they’re being naughty or nice.

The police have been delighted, and most motorists laugh at the sight of the mittened, goggled nisse in his yellow safety vest. But angry, impatient youth recently targeted the Fotoboks Nisse with their car.

Sakte Fart T-ShirtThey might want to be nicer. Father Christmas’s lumps of coal are a lot easier than the government’s fines and license revocation, and the area sounds ripe for income generation from speeders.

Taken together, the oddities of Norway’s roads soon will jar English speakers out of their fascination with the “funny word” and into a higher state of concentration when driving in the country. It is likely to be humbling for Americans, as we tend to assume our historical invention of the automobile automatically makes us superior drivers. But when measuring excellence by skill rather than simple speed, we pale in comparison.

As in other areas of lifestyle, the Norwegian roadway experience questions the assumption that “getting there” requires thoughtless acceleration, with no attention to others or the surrounding environment.

Sakte fart (slow down) can be a pretty good motto for life in general – as long as it is, in fact, accompanied by forward movement.

Still, Americans will want to think twice before bringing home the T-shirt.

*Allocation of funds to benefit only oneself or one’s constituents, with no attention to national concerns, should be familiar to Americans. Consider central Pennsylvania’s infamous pork-barrel Republican congressman Bud Shuster, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, who in 1976 federally funded a $25 million, 4.6-mile bypass for his hometown of Everett. Or the late Republican senator Ted Stevens’s infamous $233 million “Bridge to Nowhere,” earmarked to connect Gravina Island – population, 50 – with mainland Alaska. As of 2011, funding for the latter continued to appear in the budget.
**This odd phenomenon seems related to how much interest the Ministry of Transport takes in a roadway. The situation around Oslo is most perplexing, with recent fluctuations in signage stemming from the previous Transport Minister’s attempt to enforce an “environmental speed limit” to keep pollution down. When an effort to bypass the court’s ruling that changing area speed limits for such purposes went against the law and couldn’t be enforced, the Public Roads Administration tried lowering the overall speed limit. A deputy chair of the parliamentary Transport Committee suggested that some in the administration had taken “too much cod liver oil, and Møller [oil] will push anything through.”