If you have driven in more than one country, you know that there is no universal standard of traffic laws and driving etiquette. If you are planning to rent a car in Reykjavik and drive around Iceland, it’s a good idea to make yourself aware of the local customs to be adhered to behind the wheel. Here are a few fun facts and important pieces of information on traffic lights in Iceland.
Traffic lights were installed in Iceland for the first time in 1949, as the traffic was gradually increasing and more families owned a vehicle. The lights were initially placed on the four main intersections of downtown Reykjavik. Things have completely changed now, haven't they?
Icelandic Rules for Traffic Lights
Learn the rules, sequence, and meaning of the Icelandic traffic lights:
- Red light: It means you must stop and wait for the green light to come.
- Red and yellow light at a time: Get ready! the green light is about to flash.
- Green light: You can go ahead.
- Yellow light: The light is about to change to red, and the vehicle must be stopped. In case you are already over the stoplight, you can go ahead if it is safe to do so. This is an exception and not a rule!
Can you turn right on a red light in Iceland?
No, you cannot. It's illegal to turn right at a red light unless a sign or signal specifically authorizes it, which is not common in Iceland at all.
Accessible traffic lights in Reykjavik
This system helps blind people when crossing a street. These traffic lights have three types of acoustic signals that vary in frequency and duration. First, it has an orientating tone, this way the user can come closer to the pedestrian crossing. A slow, tweeting sound will then start and that means the user can cross the street. It will eventually get faster, letting the user know the traffic light is about to change to green.
These tones allow the user to clearly and unequivocally receive information on the state of the signal crossing. This way it is not mixed with traffic noise.
Heart-Shaped Traffic Lights Iceland
The great thing about Icelanders is that even when they ask you to stop, they want to be nice about it. One town in northern Iceland, Akureyri, has taken this to the next level. They have changed all of the stop signs on their traffic lights into heart shapes. These were installed after the 2008 global financial meltdown, which hit Iceland fairly hard. They were seen as a way to boost morale; one thing is for sure, they make you smile when you see them.
Unfortunately, Reykjavík still has the regular circle red lights, so hopefully, this heart-felt gesture spreads to the rest of Iceland at some point. Other than that, traffic lights here look just like what you’re used to: red, orange, and green, with the accompanying messages to stop, be ready, and go.
Traffic Laws in Iceland
In some countries, it is allowed to turn right at a red light if traffic is clear. This is illegal in Iceland, so wait for the green light. Additionally, in a two-lane roundabout, the vehicle in the inner lane has the right of way. There are some tunnels in Iceland that have only a single lane passing through. Many of these used to have traffic lights to allow drivers to pass each other safely, but some have been replaced by stop signs.
Generally, these signs are written in English and Icelandic, so it’s hard to miss them. When passing through single-lane tunnels and over single-lane bridges, stay aware and keep an eye out for other drivers.
The speed limits in Iceland are as follows: 50kmph (31mph) for populated areas, 80kmph (50mph) on gravel roads, and 90kmph (56mph) on paved highways. Some areas will ask you to slow down to 30kmph (19mph). Everyone in the vehicle is required to wear their seatbelts at all times and, for those that like a drink, know that Iceland’s drink-driving laws are extremely strict. Play it safe and don’t drink at all when you’re planning to drive. Driving off-road is illegal in Iceland, so stick to the roads.
The main highway in Iceland, Route 1 (otherwise known as the ring road) is only two lanes wide, so be careful if overtaking. Keep in mind that almost all written road signs in Iceland are in Icelandic, so familiarise yourself with some of the most important words.
There are many driving hazards in Iceland to be aware of, the most obvious of which is the weather. Iceland’s weather is unpredictable and can be extreme; in the winter, spring and autumn, it’s not uncommon to hear about a snowstorm or sandstorm. Heavy rain or snowfall combined with cold temperatures can make roads very icy, and Iceland’s occasionally strong wind can drastically reduce visibility. Roads will be closed if they are deemed unsafe to drive on. You can check forecasts on the Icelandic Meteorological Office’s website, and check for road closures. When you collect your car, ensure that it is fitted with winter tires and always have de-icer handy. Even in the summer, when temperatures climb slightly higher, the weather can still change quickly. It’s best to always be prepared for the worst, with warm, waterproof clothing.
Once you leave the capital, gas stations will be few and far between. It’s a good idea to fill up whenever you are at or below half a tank and are near a petrol station.; the next one might be far away. And it’s essential to have a full tank before driving up to the highlands. These are in the interior of Iceland and are only accessible via F roads.
F roads are gravel roads that are not well maintained, and so only 4x4 vehicles are permitted to drive on them. They are also only open between June and September, but even this limited opening time depends on weather conditions. If you are planning to visit the wild interior of the country, we recommend you book your 4x4 rental in advance as the best rental options like the Toyota Land Cruiser, the Subaru Forester or the Land Rover Defender often go sold out during high season.
Many of the F roads involve river crossings, so after a winter and spring of heavy rain and/or snowfall, some of the rivers may be uncrossable. Even in summer, be very careful and try to avoid crossing rivers as your rental insurance probably won't cover any damages caused by this behavior.
On your Icelandic road trip, you will probably run into some sheep. There are approximately 800,000 on the island; that’s more than two per human inhabitant. Occasionally, some sheep may wander into the road. If you do come across some blocking your way, approach slowly and watch out for darting individuals.