A few tips about driving in Iceland
When driving in Iceland one can easily get distracted while trying to take in the ever-changing scenery and ethereal beauty of the nature. But try and restrain yourself. The narrow gravel roads, tiny one-way bridges and rogue sheep demand your full attention. So, before you fasten your seatbelt, shift into gear and step on the accelerator it’s good to take note of some of the primary traffic rules that apply in Iceland.
Firstly, traffic in Iceland is right-hand traffic and the general speed limit is 30 to 50 kilometres per hour when driving in residential areas and 90 kilometres per hour on the highway. On good gravel roads, the maximum speed is 80 kilometres per hour. Accidents regularly happen when drivers lose control of their vehicle while driving too fast when tarmac changes to gravel.
Route 1, or the Ring Road (Hringvegurinn), is the national highway that runs around the island and covers a distance of 1,339 kilometres.
How to become an amazing driver
Elsa Jóna Sveinsdóttir, a driving instructor, says there is good reason to warn drivers especially about the stocky, short-tailed Icelandic sheep that roam the open countryside during summer grazing season. Those four-legged pedestrians can be quite unpredictable and drivers are advised to keep a watchful eye on them.
“Narrow bends, blind rises, loose gravel, deep potholes and dodgy road margins can pose a risk when driving on gravel roads. It’s crucial to keep well to the right side when navigating these roads. Should the front-wheel drift to the edge of a gravel road, ease your foot off the accelerator immediately and with a steady grip on the wheel, steer the vehicle back onto the road,” Elsa Jóna explains.
• Blind rises
When driving in the more remote parts of Iceland, one is sure to encounter many blind rises. It is important to slow down when nearing a blind rise and keep well to the right side of the road. Never stop the vehicle on top of, or below a blind rise.
• Single lane bridges
These are common in Iceland. The rule of thumb is the vehicle first to arrive at the bridge has the right of way.
• Buckle up
All passengers are required by law to use safety-belts. These are known to save lives.
• Lights on.
Headlights must be turned on at all times, day and night, all year around.
• No drinking
Driving under the influence of alcohol is prohibited in Iceland.
• Stay cool
Slippery roads are the main cause of traffic accidents in Iceland. Should the vehicle start skidding on ice or snow, let go of the accelerator and slowly gear down. Leave a good gap between you and the car in front when driving in these conditions.
• Dangerous roadsides
Wet and steep roadsides can be risky, show caution.
• Getting stuck
If the vehicle gets stuck in snow, shift into first gear and slowly rock back and forth.
• Stay on the roads
All off-road driving is prohibited by law. Icelandic nature is extremely sensitive and off-road driving can leave a mark for decades to come.
• Stay informed
Never head off into the unknown – weather conditions in Iceland can change very quickly. Check the weather forecast before you set of and be well prepared. Keep warm clothing in the car for emergencies.
Muddy public pathways that connect the north and the south
The majority of people visit Iceland because of its unspoiled nature, for many it can be tempting to simply drive off into the highlands, where towering glaciers slowly grind their way down towards the extensive black volcanic sands, to enjoy the solitude and breath-taking scenery. No matter how adventurous this might sound, it is not a clever thing to do. And this is why: Most mountain roads are closed for summer-traffic until early July because of their bad condition. These are narrow gravel roads that turn into muddy quagmires when emerging after a hard winter. The terrain is difficult to travel across and only meant for vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive.
The most frequented highland roads are Kjölur, Sprengisandur and Fjallabaksleið Nyrðri. The two aforementioned are old public pathways that connected the north and the south and were frequented by chieftains that had to attend Parliament held at Þingvellir. A popular poem titled Á Sprengisandi tells the tale of farmers herding their sheep across the highland but as darkness descends they encounter outlaws, elves and other-worldly creatures along the way.
Kjalarvegur hinn forni, or the Old Kjölur Road, is still used for hiking and horse-trecking. Age-old cairns mark the trail still today.
5 things to keep in mind when crossing rivers
i. When crossing glacial rivers, make sure to drive very slowly and never to switch gears while in the water.
ii. Water flow in glacial rivers is usually less in the morning making it the most feasible time to cross.
iii. On warm summer days the water flow can increase substantially. When in doubt whether to cross or not, a good rule to follow is: Do not drive into rivers that you would not attempt to wade into.
iv. The easiest place to cross is often marked. Another recommendation: The deepest part of the river is usually where the water surface is calmest.
v. The best way to cross a river is to follow the stream diagonally downwards.
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