The other day I was nearly killed by a tourist. Heading in to Keflavik Airport this guy in a hired car was driving on the wrong side of the road and even though I stopped, beeped and flashed my lights he still didn’t realise what he was doing. In 2015 over 200 tourists were involved in car accidents and with so many tourists opting for a self-drive holiday here are some tips for safe winter driving in Iceland. This post is not a rant against tourists, it’s to help you not have an accident. SafeTravel have excellent resources on driving in Iceland, here are some of the main points but I strongly recommend you check out their site and Drive.is safety videos.
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Driving in Iceland: General Rules
Drive on the right
In Iceland we drive on the right (or as far as I’m concerned wrong) side of the road. So if you’re from the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other parts of Asia, East Africa, when you turn out onto another road, or coming on to a roundabout, repeat with me “Go the wrong way, go the wrong way.” If you’re from anywhere else just keep going your normal wrong way and you’ll be fine. At four way junctions give way to the right. On roundabouts the car on the inside has priority.
It’s mandatory to drive with dipped headlights at all times, day or night, summer or winter. Many newer cars have automatic parking lights but not headlights. Bizarrely there seem to be quite a few tourists that don’t how to switch on their lights. If we can’t see you it can cause an accident. Switch from full headlights to dipped lights when another car approaches.
- In populated areas: 50 km/hr
- Approaching populated areas 70-60 km/hr
- Residential areas: 30 km/hr
- Gravel roads: 80 km/hr
- Paved roads: 90 km/hr
Speed cameras are frequent enough and fines are steep. The speed limit is a maximum not a target. If, especially when conditions are bad or roads are narrow and winding, you don’t feel comfortable or in control of the car at that speed, slow down. They can go around you. I have had to drive at 20km/hr on Route 1 when the snow is blowing and visibility was bad.
- Seatbelts are mandatory
- The use of mobile phones while driving is prohibited
- It’s against the law to operate a vehicle after consuming alcohol in Iceland
- The first car on a one-way bridge has right of way. Believe me it is not fun trying to reverse half the length of a bridge in snow and ice because someone refuses to move from the first three meters of their side even though they don’t have right of way.
- Parking in Reykjavik is expensive but outside the capital there is usually free parking. Check out the Leggja app where you can pay for parking through your phone.
- Non-4×4 cars are not allowed on gravel roads at any time of year. If you have an accident you will not be covered by insurance.
Just don’t. Off-road driving in strictly forbidden Iceland as it damages nature for decades. If the road does not have a number, do not drive on it, even if there are tire tracks. Fines are steep and more importantly just don’t be that asshole that ruins it for everyone.
Crazy things I’ve seen tourists do in Iceland
- Stopping in the middle of the road to take a photo, or to pet a horse: it might seem like the roads are deserted but they aren’t. This could cause a serious accident.
- Locking themselves out of their car: Iceland is probably not going to remain the safe, low crime destination it is forever. I do lock my car in Reykjavík, I generally don’t outside the city unless I have my bow in it (leaving weapons unattended is never a good idea). But feel for the tourists who lost their car keys in the snow at Jökulsárlón which is so easy (and expensive) to do when they were safer in the car.
- Not applying the handbrake and losing your car in a glacial lagoon. It seems a lot of accidents happen around Jökulsárlón.
- Driving all over the road because they are distracted by the beautiful scenery. Yes it’s gorgeous, now get back to your side of the road and concentrate.
- Blindly follow Google Maps and decide that over the highlands is the best way to go to Akureyri in winter (please don’t do this), or spend 6 hours driving to Northern Iceland when your hotel was in Reykjavik.
- Driving in places inappropriate to their vehicle: small cars on gravel roads, any cars on glaciers… this is stupid, irresponsible, causes a lot of damage to the environment and can possibly kill you.
Crazy things I’ve seen locals do in Iceland
- Driving in the middle of the road: you will see three tracks on roads in winter. Expect people (especially super 4×4’s) to be way out.
- Driving with one light: Hafnarfjörður motorbikes as I like to call them are (way too) common.
- Crazy overtaking: just because the locals are doesn’t mean you should.
Self-drive trips are probably the most popular way to see Iceland and there are many car hire companies in Iceland to choose from, though hiring a car in Iceland is not cheap. Some things to keep in mind when choosing a car include the type of car and tyres.
4×4 cars and studded tyres are essential for winter driving outside the capital region. Make sure the tyres are not worn. Even in the Golden Circle, the roads can be much icier than Route One and they get ploughed frequently due to the volume of traffic. Many accidents occur with small compact cars which are unable to cope with snow and ice. There are potholes in my drive you can swim in, people get stuck all the time. Do not try to save money on car hire and then find you can’t visit half the places you wanted to or worse, you have an accident.
Fuel is expensive, much more so than the US and 4x4s use a lot. Fill up as often as possible in case you can’t later.
When driving in snow and ice
- If you skid, steer into the direction of the skid and don’t brake
- Avoid driving through blowing snow or snowfalls (check Road.is for latest conditions). Visibility will be very poor and it’s better to wait. If you are out and it’s unavoidable slow down and use the sticks on the side of the road to aid you. Bear in mind that signs can get iced over and be unreadable.
- Start slowly with a cold engine
- Keep a safe distance from the car in front of you – at least 20 seconds or 66m meters if driving at 30km/hr
- Drive smoothly and gently, keeping revs low
- Use four-wheel drive
- If you get stuck: do not rev and use a light touch, use your snow shovel, turn your wheels to the side, switch between forwards and reverse and get some traction under the tyres
Be prepared for conditions
Cars, can and do, blow off the road. The wind can be ferocious here and even my local friends had a scare when on a trip where the car would not move forwards only sideways because of the wind. Road.is has a great site which shows the weather conditions of the roads. Be especially mindful of wind speeds. Do not travel when Vedur.is issue travel warnings. Mountain roads are closed in winter, this goes for even 4x4s. So as I’m living here I probably have more stuff than the average traveller is going to pack but this is the very messy boot of my car.
- Sleeping bag – I have a Mountain Equipment bag that’s good to -15ºC
- Shovel – for digging yourself out of the snow
- Tow rope – only necessary if you have a dodgy starter wire but my friends got this and it was the best present ever!
- Jump leads – in case your battery dies and no one else has any
- First Aid Kit, Mountain Survival Kit with foil blanket, survival bag and a Multitool
- De-icer – don’t leave this in the car. My doors have often frozen shut. Also don’t turn on iced up wiper blades unless you want to rip them apart. A snow scraper is also essential. If these aren’t in the car already just pick them up in any gas station.
- WD-40 – always useful
Driving around Iceland is amazing. You will have one of the best road trips possible, but please, for everyone, be careful. If you are not confident with winter driving then maybe opt for a series of excursions instead? That way you get to relax and enjoy the view stress-free.