Icelandic Traffic Laws
Once you leave Reykjavík, driving is arguably the best way to get around Iceland. In the capital, the bus service is extensive and frequent, but there are no trains here to take you on longer journeys. You could fly domestically, but by driving you give yourself greater freedom. The freedom to stop and take pictures and to take all the snacks you can fit into your car. You also have the freedom to head up to the highlands, which are only reachable by car. But with these freedoms come responsibilities; namely, you are responsible for learning Iceland’s traffic laws, some of which may be very different than your own. Renting a car here means learning what you need to know about driving in Iceland.
Iceland Traffic Laws
First of all, we drive on the right side of the road in Iceland. Having driven on both sides during my travels, I can say that it initially takes a lot of focus to shift your mindset. However, with practice, you can become accustomed quickly so, for my British or Australian readers, don’t be put off by the right-side driving. A road trip in Iceland is an adventure you’ll never forget, so take it slow and you’ll get the hang of it in no time.
It should go without saying, but everyone in the car must wear their seatbelts at all times; both the driver and all passengers. If anyone is found by police to not be wearing their seatbelts, they face an immediate fine. Another point to make is that it is required by law in Iceland to have your car headlights on at all times, day and night. This is especially important in winter when it is dark most of the time. And for those that are planning to go beyond Reykjavík and explore the country, know that driving off-road is illegal in Iceland. This is so that Iceland’s beautiful natural landscape can be preserved. This includes driving in the highlands when you have to navigate Iceland’s mountain roads or F roads. Although the F roads are gravel roads, they are clearly marked and so don’t be tempted to stray from them. If caught driving off-road, the penalty is a heavy fine. And while we are on the subject of F roads, they can only be driven on with a 4x4; two-wheel drive vehicles are prohibited. Check with your rental company that you are hiring a car suitable for F roads if your plan is to head up to the highlands. Note also that F roads are only open from June to September, and even this is dependent on weather conditions. Check this website to ensure your route is clear and open before embarking on a trip.
In urban areas, the speed limit is 50km/hour and 30km/hour in certain areas. On highways and on Route 1 (the ring road), the limit is 90km/hour, and on gravel roads, it is 80km/hour. Take note that there are many speed cameras, both inside and outside of the capital, and along Route 1. If you are caught speeding, your license plate will be tracked and a ticket sent to the registered address. In the case of renting a car, because you submitted your credit card details, the rental company will charge your card with the speeding fine. Or, you could be stopped by one of the police vehicles who patrol the highways, who will issue you with an on the spot fine. Play it safe, stick to the speed limits.
Icelandic weather is unpredictable. We have a saying for it: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” There’s no telling what could be coming, so check the forecast but be prepared for extremes. In the winter, storms are frequent, with strong winds and heavy snowstorms. Drive to the road conditions. If it’s been raining or snowing heavily, drive slower and take the corners gently. If you are traveling in Iceland in the winter, ensure that your rental car is fitted with winter tires. They have a better grip to deal with icy roads. Or, you could take it further and ask for studded tires to be fitted. These are tires fitted with small metal studs to provide extra grip on ice. However, they are only permitted in Iceland between November 1st and April 14th, as they cause damage to roads. If there is a storm on the forecast, don’t take any chances. Stay indoors and wait for it to pass before you begin your road trip. When you are driving on snow or ice, drive slower than the speed limit. While Icelanders are very used to driving in hazardous conditions, some of the many tourists in the country may not be. Leave bigger stopping distances and stay focused on your surroundings.
For the summer, make sure you have a good pair of sunglasses. The sun barely goes down in the summer months, and at some points, it’s just over the horizon. In that situation, your sun visor won’t do much good, hence the need for sunglasses. And while I hope it won’t happen too much, keep in mind that there may be heavy rainfall in the summer too. It’s always a good idea to have warm, waterproof clothing with you. Iceland’s average July temperature in the south is around 10-13°C, so don’t dress for tropical conditions.
When driving a car in Iceland, it isn’t just the weather or the traffic laws to be aware of. There are a lot of sheep in the country, and they have been known to dart across roads. So, when you come across a herd dawdling by the side of a country lane, drive slowly and be prepared for them to run in front of you. Additionally, Iceland has a fair few one-lane bridges, some of which are on Route 1. Whoever reaches the bridge first has the right of way, but approach slowly and be considerate.
When you’re driving around the spectacular Icelandic countryside, of course, you’re going to want to stop and take pictures. But don’t be tempted to stop on the side of the road; this could lead to a major accident. Wait for one of the many lay bys and rest areas that are scattered around Iceland, including dozens along Route 1.
If your adventure is going to take you onto the F roads, it’s very important to drive carefully. Firstly, there are small rocks that could shoot up and damage the underside of your car, and potholes to avoid. Secondly, there are sheer drops next to some roads, so stay clear of the edges. And finally, some F roads require the crossing of rivers. Ideally, you’ll have a raised vehicle for this purpose. And crossings should not be attempted if there has been heavy rainfall recently, as the rivers passing through may be too deep to cross. If you do become stuck on an F road, you have to wait for Björgunarsveit (the emergency rescue service) to come and collect you. This may take hours if conditions are bad.
When you leave the capital, the towns and villages will be few and far between. Two-thirds of Iceland’s small population is located in Reykjavík, so the advice is to fill up your petrol tank whenever you are running below half and there is a petrol station nearby. Many of Iceland’s petrol stations are unmanned and automated, and so only accept card payments. Grab your car, fill up your tank and enjoy your Icelandic adventure.
Samuel Hogarth, Reykjavik Cars.