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Driving Roundabouts in Iceland

Updated: Aug 12


If you’re planning to drive in Iceland, you might be interested in finding out more about their rules of the road before you take a seat behind the wheel. And while you might be focused on things like which side of the road Icelanders drive on – the right, if you didn’t know – actually you might be surprised to learn that you should be concerned about something else entirely. In fact, it’s the country’s roundabouts that will potentially cause you the most trouble. Let us explain why.


Follow the rules of the road


So you’ve left the car rental office and are ready to take to the road in Iceland for the holiday of a lifetime. You’re familiar with the speed limit in place on the ring road and in Reykjavik. You’ve heard enough about single lane bridges to know you should exercise extreme caution to avoid a head-on collision with something coming the other way. You understand that the road condition can vary considerably between those notorious mountain F roads and the well-maintained tarmac of the ring road. You even know that driving off-road is illegal in Iceland.


Roundabout rules in Iceland


That means you’re good to go – doesn’t it?

Not quite. Until you’ve got your head around roundabout rules in Iceland and in particular, you’ve learned how to drive on two-lane roundabouts, you shouldn’t set off, at least not in traffic. Many visitors are not familiar with such rules, so you’re not alone if you’re wondering what you missed. Here’s how to do roundabouts in Iceland.


Right of way in Iceland


What keeps the traffic moving in places where there are roundabouts is that drivers all understand who has right of way. If it’s clear who has priority, they filter in and weave out as if in a music-less ballet. In a place where there’s as little traffic as there typically is in Iceland, it should be almost organic, and definitely stress-free. Except that it isn’t, and that’s down to one misunderstood rule of the road.


In Iceland, on a two-lane roundabout, it’s vehicles that occupy the inner lane which has the right of way. Those vehicles in the outer lane must yield.


Think about how it is in your own country for a minute. You see? We’ll bet you that the opposite is true, or you’re rifling through a copy of your highway code to try to find out. In case you’re thinking of checking the Icelandic version, don’t. There’s nothing about the rules of driving on roundabouts except that you’re not allowed to park on one. The right of way thing is more of an accepted convention rather than a law, which is all well and good so long as everyone knows and respects such conventions.


Increased tourism brings its challenges


And therein lies the problem: the noticeable increase in tourism over the last decade has thrown up a few issues, one of which is that Icelandic roundabout traditions don’t marry up with those in other parts of the world. It’s all very well Icelandic driving schools teaching new drivers that they have priority if they’re using the inner lane until the driver of the car next to them was taught elsewhere that the exact opposite is true. Before you know it, one driver has cut the other one up and you’re looking at crumpled wings and dented pride.


Such a difference in everyday practice, regardless of whether it’s actually law or not, is giving rise to problems. Though fatal accidents are still incredibly rare in a small country such as Iceland, there has been an increasing number of less serious accidents that can be attributed to such contradictory practice. Of course, it’s easy to say that all drivers must follow the rules and conventions of the country they’re driving in, but they have to know what those are first.


A study by the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration of accidents that happened on roundabouts from 2011 to 2015 found that almost a quarter of them involved foreign drivers. That’s a disproportionately high figure when compared to the number of renters versus locals. And the figure is even more worrying when you look at junctions frequented by tourists. For instance, at the roundabout where the ring road meets the road to Thingvellir, that figure rises to almost two-thirds.


Roundabouts in Iceland - A headache for the future?


There’s a growing debate about what could be done to make Icelandic roundabouts safer. One solution is to improve communication with would-be renters and ensure that car rental agencies in Iceland inform drivers that they’ll need to alter their behavior at the country’s roundabouts.


Another, perhaps more controversially, suggests that it should be Icelandic drivers that change, to bring the country into line with the rest of the world. Those advocating such a drastic change of policy argue that it would be easier to retrain a population of 300,000 people – and those same people would find it easier to drive abroad when they take their own holidays. In the future, it’s also likely to prove a headache for those wishing to introduce self-driving cars, as they’d need to be reprogrammed to take into account the alternate convention.

That said, this still shouldn’t give would-be renters cause for alarm. The volume of traffic and accident rate in Iceland is much lower than it is in many of the places the tourists are coming from. Driving in Iceland is statistically safer than in many countries of the world – and especially for readers of this blog who’ll now know where to be particularly vigilant.

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