Driving in Iceland

A relatively large percentage of foreign tourists in Iceland travel around the country by car. Conditions in Iceland are in many ways unusual and often quite unlike what foreign drivers are accustomed to. It is therefore very important to find out how to drive in this country. We know that the landscapes are beautiful, which naturally draws the driver´s attention away from the road. But in order to reach your destination safely, you must keep your full attention on driving. This article is intended to point out the main dangers when driving in Iceland, especially the unusual ones, that may come as a complete surprise to foreign drivers.

What are the speed limits?

The speed limit in populated areas is usually 50 km/hr. Speed limit signs are usually not posted unless it is other than 50 km/hr. The speed limit is often 60 km/hr on thruways, but in residential areas it is usually only 30 km/hr. The main rule in rural areas is that gravel roads have a speed limit of 80 km/hr, and paved roads 90 km/hr. Signs indicate if other speed limits apply. High-speed cameras are present on most roads and the police also keep a scrupulous eye on speeding. Penalties for exceeding speed limits can easily total hundreds of thousands ISK. It is also worth mentioning that unpaid fines are not waived simply because a driver has left the country and returned home.

Gravel roads, blind hills & blind curves

A common place for accidents to occur on rural roads is where a paved road suddenly changes to gravel. The main reason is that drivers do not reduce speed before the changeover to gravel, and consequently lose control. Loose gravel on road shoulders has also caused a great number of accidents. When driving on gravel roads, which are often quite narrow, it is important to show caution when approaching another car coming from the opposite direction by moving as far to the right as is safely possible. Blind hills, where lanes are not separate, can be very dangerous, and should be approached with caution. There are also many blind curves in Iceland that test a driver´s skill.

Single-lane bridges

There are many single-lane bridges on the Ring Road. The actual rule is that the car closer to the bridge has the right-of-way. However, it is wise to stop and assess the situation, i.e. attempt to see what the other driver plans to do. This sign indicates that a single-lane bridge is ahead.

Livestock on the road

In Iceland, you can expect livestock to be on or alongside the road. It is usually sheep, but sometimes horses and even cows can be in your path. This is common all over the country, and can be very dangerous. Sometimes a sheep is on one side of the road and her lambs on the other side. Under these conditions, which are common, it is a good rule to expect the lambs or the sheep to run to the other side.

In 20 times more danger

According to a recent study by the Road Traffic Directorate, individuals who don't wear safety belts in rural areas are 20 times more likely to die in a car accident. Though few people neglect to buckle up, those who do not wear seat belts are disproportionately involved in 50% of fatal crashes. Wearing seatbelts is especially important considering the nature of accidents in Iceland, many of which involve vehicles veering off the road and rolling over. It should be noted that children must either wear seatbelts, or be in car safety seats, depending on their age and weight. In Iceland, drivers and passengers are required by law to wear seatbelts, regardless of the type of vehicle or where they are seated. Wearing seatbelts is especially important because of the nature of accidents in Iceland; many of them involve vehicles driving off the road and rolling over. It should be noted that children must either wear seatbelts, or be in car safety seats, depending on their age and maturity.

Important points to bear in mind :

  • It is against the law to operate a vehicle in Iceland after having consumed alcohol and the punishment for violating this law is rather strict.
  • Under no circumstances, is it permitted to drive when alcohol or other drugs have been consumed. It does not matter whether you're driving on highways, on the plateau or within summerhouse areas; it is strictly prohibited and severe penalties can be expected if you commit such a crime.
  • Iceland requires that vehicle headlights be on at all times, day and night, when driving.
  • During the summer, there's daylight both day and night and the day seems long. Drivers must be aware of this fact and avoid driving for too long, since they may fall asleep while driving.
  • In several places there are traffic signs (rectangular with white numbers on blue background), indicating the recommended maximum speed and where drivers should realise that the permitted speed limit can't be recommended because of the driving conditions.
  • The use of hands-free equipment is an obligation when talking on a mobile phone and driving at the same time.
  • It is strictly forbidden to drive off-road. Such driving results in serious damage to sensitive vegetation, which may take nature decades to repair.
  • Foreign travellers requiring information regarding road and driving conditions should visit the Public Road Administration´s website at www.vegagerdin.is
  • If any casualties result from risky behaviour on your part, such as from speeding and/or driving while under the influence of alcohol, there is an increased likelihood that you will be charged with reckless manslaughter. In addition, insurance companies have the right to demand reimbursement for any damage you are responsible for.
  • The Road Traffic Directorate has produced the video “How to Drive in Iceland” which covers most of the points that are mentioned here in this article. The video can be viewed here: www.Drive.is

A special message from the Police

The maximum speed limit on Icelandic roads is 90 km/h on gravel roads the speed limit is 80 km/h

Message from the Police, pdf (410kb)

Have a Safe Journey

Iceland offers the traveler an adventure in a beautiful and rugged landscape. Travelers are well-advised to exercise caution and respect for the country´s natural environment.

Unfortunately, there have been many accidents in the past few years involving foreign tourists travelling around the country. These accidents range from minor to fatal. The most common type of accident is that of hikers losing their footing on uneven terrain. The most serious injuries, however, are caused by road traffic accidents where travelers drive too fast in unfamiliar conditions and do not wear seat belts.

Have a Safe Journey - a new brochure for foreigners travelling in Iceland has been published by the Icelandic road traffic directorate.

Two good websites

Safe Travel
The Icelandic Road Administration