How to drive like a local on single track roads - driving in Shetland

We have great roads in Shetland – very well maintained and very little traffic. Our only town (Lerwick) has a ‘rush 10 minutes’ rather than a rush hour and as soon as you are out of town, even the main roads are quiet. The major routes are mostly standard 2-way traffic, but the vast majority of rural roads are single-track – meaning two-way roads that are only wide enough for one vehicle, with special passing places every 200 metres or so (but the distance can vary) to allow traffic to pass.


Single track road in Stromfirth

Some visitors worry about driving on single-track roads, or find themselves in difficult situations when they end up on a single-track road and don’t know what to do. Don’t panic about these roads – look at the following advice…


· Relax. Just be aware of what is happening in front and behind you, and you’ll be fine.

· If you see a vehicle coming towards you, pull into a passing place on your left, or wait opposite a passing place on your right.

· If the driver behind has approached quickly, or is following closely they may want to overtake, so pull into a passing place on your left and let them past. No-one will mind you driving slowly, but is it expected that you will let them past when you get the opportunity.

· If you are going to stop in a passing place, using your indicator light can demonstrate to the other vehicle what you are intending to do.

· If you see a car stopped by a passing place waiting for you, with the passing place on your left, then you should pull into it. Usually the place will be large enough that you can do this without stopping, and just carefully drive in and out of the place. Sometimes this won’t be possible, and you must stop in the passing place and let the other vehicle drive on before you leave it.

· Most passing places are marked by special square or diamond ‘passing place’ signs. Some passing places are not marked and it is also acceptable to use driveways or any wider section of road to allow passing.



· Driving onto verges to avoid reversing is not recommended, as cars may be damaged or get stuck in roadside ditches and soft verges.

· In an ideal world, vehicles approaching one another should adjust their speeds to meet at a passing place.

· If necessary, reverse until you reach a passing place to let the other vehicle pass. Drivers using single-track roads must be able to reverse to a passing place to let other vehicles pass. Sometimes drivers must reverse a reasonable distance. The obvious implication of this is that you should never drive a vehicle on a single-track road that you cannot readily reverse should the need arise.

· If you find yourself nose to nose with someone between passing places (and it does happen, even between attentive and considerate drivers), then the person who can most easily reverse to a passing place should do so. This usually means the person closest to a passing place should do the reversing: but gradient, type of vehicle, and number of vehicles that would have to reverse can be factors too. Also, be aware that the other vehicle may be towing a small trailer that you can’t see, which would make it more difficult for them to reverse.

· Give way to vehicles coming uphill whenever you can. Otherwise, no-one has right of way on a single-track road. It comes down to a mix of common sense and politeness.

· In Scotland (and especially in Shetland), it’s usual to give a friendly wave as ‘thank you’ if another road user has reversed or waited for you to pass. It makes all the difference!

· Sometimes there will be multiple cars travelling in each direction. Many passing places can accommodate 2 or more cars, so pull forward to let vehicles behind you enter.

· If approaching vehicles stop simultaneously in adjacent passing places this can result in a stand-off of British politeness. Usually in this case the first car to flash their lights will remain in place, but just play it by ear – there are no hard and fast rules!

· Normally it is not recommended to pull into a passing place on the right-hand side of the road (the wrong side, as we drive on the left). However, if the other vehicle is long or wide (eg. bus or truck) or towing a trailer, they may not be as manoeuvrable as you. It may be easier in this case for you to go into the passing place and allow them the straighter run through, even if the passing place is on the right. If you ever use the passing place on the right you must be very cautious – use your indicator and ensure you make the other drivers aware of your intentions in good time.

· If you are travelling in the dark, it is helpful to oncoming traffic to switch your headlights to sidelights when you are stationary waiting for them to pass. This is even more true if they are trying to reverse, as they will struggle to see anything if you are close with your headlights on (even dipped headlights).

· Most single-track roads have a speed limit of 60mph, but safer driving speeds are usually well below this.

· Be on the lookout for cyclists, pedestrians or horse riders. These road users should always be given as much room as possible and slow down as you pass them. Many single-track roads are not wide enough between passing places to allow a car to safely pass a cyclist heading in either direction, and attempting to do so would mean forcing someone off the road into a peat bog or ditch. Use passing places, just as you would for a vehicle unless these other road users have clearly moved off the road to allow you to pass.

· Do not park in passing places. Parking your car in passing places to watch birds, photograph the scenery, or to leave your vehicle while you go for a walk, prevents other road users from using passing places. If you must stop in a passing place for a short time, be prepared to drive on immediately.

· Parking in or near entrances to farm tracks, in field gateways or at cattle grid gates can prevent access by farmers and others who live and work in the countryside. 24-hour access to gates is often required, to move livestock or large farm machinery.

· Sheep or even Shetland ponies might be on the road in many areas of Shetland. Take care, slow down and be prepared to stop if you are passing them. They are generally used to traffic and do not flinch when you pass by, but sometimes they will dart suddenly in front of you. This is especially true when there are new lambs around – if mum is on one side of the road and the lamb is on the other, you really should expect anything to happen.

· There are times when the only way to pass a herd of cattle or sheep is to stop, turn off your engine, and wait for the herd to be driven past you.

· You will encounter cattle-grids on many single-track as well as some main roads. We can generally drive over these at normal speed – traffic behind you will not expect you to slow down to cross them.


So the take-home message is don't worry. If you are used to congested, busy roads elsewhere, I'm sure you will find driving in Shetland is a pleasure. Please let me know if you find this blog useful or think that the reality is any different and happy motoring.

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