Safety tips for driving in Iceland: Are the roads safe?

Most of Iceland's metro roads are amazing to drive on, it's when you get out of town that you really need to pay attention.

Self driving around Iceland can be one of the best ways to see the country from the spectacular black sand beaches, to towering columnar basalt lined waterfalls and glacier capped volcanoes, it is well worth grabbing a rental car and hitting the road. Iceland also has some great towns and quaint villages to stop off at on the way.

In a country which has approximately 320,000 people, you would think it would be easy as jumping in the car and driving off for the trip of extraordinary proportions. But there are some things to keep in mind to ensure your journey is a smooth and safe one.

Basic road rules for Iceland

All drivers in lceland inc. tourists must have their headlights on at all times.

Speeds limits throughout Iceland are lower than in many other countries. The fastest you'll probably be able to go is 80 to 90 km/h on paved highways. The speed limit for cities is typically 50 km/h in and 30 km/h in residential areas. Some other driving laws in Iceland include no right turns on a red light; yielding to the driver on the right at four-way intersections; and giving way to drivers in the inside lane in roundabouts.

Seatbelts for all passengers, even those in the back seat, are required. Cell phones can not be used without a hands-free headset.

Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is strictly forbidden.

Road conditions in Iceland

Iceland's road network is easy to navigate which makes it great for visitors who want to see Iceland on a self drive tour. The Highway No. 1, known by the locals as Hringvegur or ring road and runs 900 miles around the entire country. It is open most of the year with the occasional temporary closure in winter or for repairs.

But some roads in Iceland are not as open and maintained as one might think. Barely a third of Iceland's total network of roads are paved - the remaining are gravel or dirt, especially those winding through the middle of the country. However the major highways including the national ring road are paved and some of the paved roads are very narrow and might not have shoulders to pull over on. So if you do decide to stop off to sightsee, make sure you pull over somewhere safe and out of the way of traffic.

There is a network of roads mainly in the highlands of Iceland known as F-roads. Naturally, loose gravel poses a problem on these roadways, and you should slow down and heed the signs. If you want to use the F-Roads, you will need a 4 x 4 rental vehicle as all types of rental vehicles are not allowed. Generally, these roads are only open for the summer months.

4 wheel driving Iceland style..

Some of the signs you may see while driving include:

  • Malbik Endar - indicates a change from a paved road to a gravel road
  • Einbreið Brú - one lane bridge, most bridges in Iceland are one lane
  • Illfær Vegur - any road which is inaccessible by car and 4WD only
  • Blindhaed - blind rise or crest in the road, important you stay in your lane
  • Slysasvaedi - accident prone area

At certain times of the year, road travel will be more difficult, if not impossible. From early winter to mid-summer, some of the central roads cutting through the country may be marred by mud.

Some highland tracks may only be open for part of the summer, and you should always check with the Icelandic Road Administration, or Vegagerdin, before driving there or to other remote areas. In especially rural areas, you often drive a long way before hitting the next town or even a gas station, which is usually open 24 hours.

Travelers are advised to carry food and water in their cars and know where to find lodging in case they encounter road closures or severe weather. Beware of speeding drivers on long stretches of road and farm animals like sheep that wander into your path.

There are also roads in Iceland that snake up cliffs and have few barriers. Be extremely cautious if navigating these twists and turns, as a false move can be deadly.

Travelers who choose to rent cars to drive through Iceland should check their coverage level for certain types of roads, especially those in rural or unsecured mountain areas. Be aware, too, that renting a car here is expensive, especially for four-wheel drive vehicles, which are required if heading into the interior rugged parts of the country.

Driving is also hazardous during the days of full darkness occurring between October through April, which is also the span when weather changes most rapidly.

These can also include changes in river levels, which can make some areas completely impassable. It's no wonder Icelandic law requires all drivers to keep their headlights on at all times. Snow tires are also required after October.

In terms of driving fatalities, 17 people died on Icelandic roads in 2009, a low amount by some estimations, but still a higher rate per capita than countries like England. 

And after all the temptation to stop in amazing places while driving doesn't grab you, it's possible to get around Iceland via several bus lines, planes or by bike. Hitchhiking is also still an acceptable and safe form of transportation in this country. The only real danger to it is that you might wait long periods of time between seeing cars, sometimes as long an hour.

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1 Comment

  • Camper van rental Iceland said

    Excellent advice. There are a few more things one could add when it comes to driving in the highlands (F-roads). We compiled some info on the subject here:
    Safe travels!

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