Driving in Iceland can be a daunting prospect. While most of the Ring Road is paved and in good condition, there are some gravel spots, and if you plan on getting off the main road (as you should) you’ll be faced with lots more gravel spots, blind corners, narrow bridges, animal hazards, flooded roads, potholes, and more. And that’s in summer. Despite that, it’s still pretty easy for tourists to drive themselves around the country, if they take the right precautions. Here’s what you need to know about driving in Iceland.
Licenses and basic laws
All European and US licences are valid in Iceland, but drivers must be 21 years old to rent a car, and 25 years old to rent a jeep. Seat belts for both front and back passengers are required, headlights must be on at all times (night and day) and cell phones can only be used with hands-free equipment. There are still penalties for driving under the influence, and many car rental agencies will not allow you to take a rental car on highland roads (you’ll face a large fine if you do, not to mention, you’ll be responsible for any damage to the car).
In all parts of Iceland, call “112” to reach Iceland Police, as well as ambulances and fire department. In the Reykjavik area, “1770” calls a doctor to medical emergencies.
Rules of the road
Cars drive on the right side of the road in Iceland. The general speed limit is 50 km/h in urban areas; 80 km/h on gravel roads and 90 km/h on hard surfaces. Watch out for animals on the side of the road. Drivers who kill or injure livestock may be responsible for paying damages to the owner. Highland roads in Iceland are usually narrow gravel roads, and most rivers are not bridged. On maps and roadsigns, they are indicated with an F before the road number, and most are suitable for jeeps only. Driving off marked roads and trails is illegal.
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Tips for safe driving
- Roads in Iceland can be narrow, especially if there is snow on the side of the road or if you are on a gravel road. Slow down when you see an oncoming car. Slow down when you meet other vehicles, especially when driving on gravel road
- Slow down when the road changes from paved to gravel. Many drivers loose control of their vehicles at these points.
- Blind hills are common. When you approach one, slow down and move to the right.
- When approaching a one-lane bridge, slow down, move to the right, and allow the car closest to pass first.
- Never attempt to cross a river unless you are in a four-wheel drive vehicle, like a jeep, and only after the 4wd have been engaged. Before you attempt to cross, wade into the river to check the depth and velocity. It’s easy to underestimate the power of the river and many cars have been swept away or stuck.
- Always take along a detailed map, and when heading to a remote area, make sure you have a full tank of gas.
Tips for highland driving
Driving in the highlands of Iceland’s interior presents a special challenge and requires a 4WD vehicle. If you are caught taking an unapproved car on these roads, you could be fined.
- Verify what the insurance on the car covers. Most rentals are insured for damaged to car caused by crossing rivers, and extra insurance is needed for driving in the highlands.
- Highland roads are only open in the summer. Most open in July, but only if conditions are right. Expect hazards like unbridged rivers, floods, and extreme mud.
- All highland roads are made of loose gravel, which presents special challenges. Observe the speed limit, slow down around turns and when you seen an oncoming car, and never lock your breaks on loose gravel.
Be sure to allow extra time for your journey and make sure you have a full tank of gas. Roads in Iceland are clearly marked, but gravel roads, windy roads, narrow bridges, and unexpected hazards can make a trip take longer than expected. Outside of Reykjavik, petrol stations are few and far between. For a tutorial on driving in Iceland, check out this video.