Photo: Páll Stefánsson.
With a 34 percent year-over-year increase in the number of visitors to Iceland this year, there’s a record amount of traffic on Iceland’s roads. A record number of rental cars. A record number of people who are unfamiliar with the conditions. There have unsurprisingly been more accidents involving tourists—of the 1,324 people who were injured in traffic in Iceland last year, 208 were foreign tourists—including a number of fatalities. There’s increasing awareness among car hire companies and others of the need to educate visitors about the unique conditions and hazards of driving in Iceland, but more certainly needs to be done. Before you set off on your road trip around Iceland, please do your homework and read up about the road and weather conditions.
Here are a few tips:
· Drivers often report that it’s easy to lose sense of how fast you’re driving in Iceland without the usual markers like trees, but don’t forget that the speed limit outside urban areas in Iceland is never more than 90 km/h (55 mph). Remember that wearing your seat belt is the law and could save your life.
· Not speeding is one thing but driving too slowly is another, encouraging others to overtake, sometimes under dangerous circumstances.
· There are long distances to be covered and plenty to see, so plan accordingly so you won’t find yourself tempted to let your eyes wander from the road or to speed. If you stop to take photos, indicate and move your car off the road.
· The road and weather conditions in Iceland are different to what many people are used to: gravel roads in places, single-lane bridges and other tourists stopping on the spot. Then there’s the added hazard of sheep, sometimes hidden from the driver’s view, which tend to jump onto the road without warning. Even once you’ve seen them cross, don’t speed up just yet, as lambs follow their mothers and others will often unexpectedly follow their lead, too.
· The long summer days can be deceiving so be sure to take regular breaks and not drive for too long. And remember that you must drive with your headlights lit 24 hours a day, regardless of the time of year.
· Don’t trust your GPS blindly: the shortest route might not be the best or fastest and some places have the same or similar place names.
· If you’re heading into the highlands, seek advice on crossing rivers. And don’t even think about it without a 4x4 SUV. Often it’s necessary to first you should wade into the water to examine the river’s velocity, depth and what the bottom is composed of.
· Iceland might look stunning in winter but those icy roads and that approaching blizzard could be deadly. Only after you’ve got caught out by a winter storm, or had to stop suddenly on slippery winter roads in the Icelandic countryside, will you truly understand these dangers but please take our word for it.
· By all means head into the darkness of the night to experience the northern lights, but don’t stop your car without indicating and moving it well off the road. Especially once you’ve killed the headlights, you’re posing a real danger to others. Particularly on icy roads where vehicles require more stopping time. There isn’t always sufficient room on the side of the road, so wait until you find a suitable pull-off spot.
· Also keep in mind that only around 5,000 km (3,100 miles) of Iceland’s 13,000 km of roads are serviced during winter, meaning many roads are blocked by snow. If you do head out of the capital in winter, be sure to factor in driving at a reduced speed because of icy roads and don’t forget the days are short at this time of year.
· Highland and mountain roads are only open during the summer and early autumn. As many roads in Iceland are raised on embankments to prevent winter snow from burying them, roll-over accidents often occur when drivers lose control of their vehicles and drive off the road.
· Winter tires, a scraper and brush and windshield washer fluid are a must and, even if you’re on a day trip and intend on staying in the comfort of your heated car, warm clothes and some basic food supplies are necessary in the event that you get stranded. A flashlight is also recommended and a snow shovel. Though short, the winter days can be bright and the low winter sun and its reflection on the snow blinding, so pack your sunglasses.
· Before you set off, do your research. There are several good resources for driving in Iceland, including road.is, safetravel.is and inspired.visiticeland.com/ academy. Don’t forget to follow the weather forecast on en.vedur.is/en.