Season Guide: Travelling and Driving in Iceland During Summer

A car driving in the Icelandic countryside.

Whether you‘ll be cycling, driving, or using public transport, travelling in Iceland, even during summertime, might differ from what you‘re used to. Road conditions, hilly landscape, unpredictable weather, and a limited public transport schedule are all part of that. To help you out, here is our summer guide to travelling and driving in Iceland.

Cycling in Iceland 

If you want to cycle in Iceland, summer offers the best conditions in terms of both weather and road conditions. Within cities and towns, people bike on sidewalks or bike lanes. Icelandic roads are not made with bicycles in mind, which means that when travelling outside towns and cities, you‘ll mostly have to cycle on the side of the road alongside driving cars. If this is your chosen way of travelling across the country, you must be highly aware of your surroundings. Cycling off-road/off-track is strictly prohibited. 

Plan ahead when opting for public transport

Public transport tends to run smoothly in Iceland during the summer, as weather and bad road conditions are far less likely to cause delays or cancellations. The main cause of delays during the summer is traffic, which is at its peak on Fridays and Sundays. Many public transport routes run less frequently during the summer, so make sure to check the schedule.

Driving around Iceland: Cities, towns and the countryside

There are three main types of roads in Iceland: asphalt, gravel, and mountain roads. During summer, a regular car with summer tires will do fine on both asphalt and most gravel roads. The main thing to remember is to slow down when going from asphalt to gravel so as not to lose control of the car. When meeting cars from the opposite direction, take it slow and stay as far to the right as possible, as gravel roads are often narrow. On all roads, beware that rapidly changing weather can quickly change driving conditions, and watch out for sheep crossing the road. 

Driving in the Highland 

Should you venture into the Highland or other mountain roads, you‘ll need a 4×4 jeep. Campervans and regular cars are NOT equipped for these roads. Be mindful that some mountain roads don‘t open until late in the summer. Vegagerðin has a live map of general road conditions, which roads require mountain vehicles, and which roads are open/closed.

Icelandic driving regulations

Driving regulations in Iceland might be different to what you‘re used to. For your own safety and that of others, please familiarise yourself with them. Here are the top rules to remember:

  • In Iceland, cars drive on the right side of the road and priority is given to the right. 
  • In double roundabouts, the traffic on the inner lane has priority over the outer lane.
  • The general speed limit is 30-50 km/hour in populated areas, 80 or 90 km/hour on rural paved areas, and 80 km/hour on rural gravel roads. Some roads may not be suitable for the legal maximum speed, in which case you might spot a sign like this, with a suggestive maximum speed:
  • All passengers must wear seatbelts, and children must have appropriate safety equipment. Car seats for children can usually be added when renting a car. 
  • Headlights are required to be on day and night.
  • Driving off road is strictly forbidden and can result in a very high fine.
  • It‘s illegal to drive after consuming ANY AMOUNT of alcohol or drugs.

For a comprehensive list of road signs, check out this guide.

Iceland Weather: Storms, Road Closures, and Avalanche Risk

winter tires reykjavík

Iceland’s Ring Road (Route 1) is currently closed over Öxnadalsheiði heath, between Akureyri and Reykjavík, due to weather. Yellow weather warnings have also been issued across much of the country today due to strong winds. The Icelandic Met Office declared an “uncertainty phase” in the East Fjords this morning due to the risk of avalanches.

Seyðisfjörður alavanche risk

There was heavy precipitation in Seyðisfjörður last night, with continuing precipitation at higher elevations and a strong E-ENE wind in the mountains, according to a notice from the Icelandic Met Office. Precipitation should slow throughout the day, and the wind speed is expected to slow and change direction to a northerly. Experts are monitoring conditions closely.

Strong winds and blowing snow

Gale-force winds are expected today across much of Iceland, including the Westfjords, West, North, East, and Southeast. Wind speeds in these areas could reach speeds of 20 metres per second. Blowing snow is in the forecast for most of these regions as well. Poor driving conditions can be expected as a result of weather, as well as traffic disruptions and road closures.

Travellers and affected residents are encouraged to monitor weather and road conditions before setting out.

When and why did Iceland change to driving on the right?

Kjölur highland road

As you might know, the British occupied Iceland during the Second World War in order to secure Allied shipping lanes. While they were here, they built the Reykjavík Airport, Nissen huts, and parts of the road system.

However, something many people might not know is that Icelanders drove on the left side even before the Brits came. Even back then, this was something of an exception. Iceland’s former colonizer, Denmark, for instance, also drove on the right. The arrival of the British just cemented the habit, and it wasn’t until 1968 that Icelanders made the switch (and they might also have been influenced by Sweden, who made the switch in 1967).

Iceland was expanding its road system significantly during this time (the ring road was “only” completed in 1974), and the thinking was that before Icelanders spend all of the time and money building up their road system to meet modern standards, then any changes should be made before, not after, the project.

So, in anticipation of the last push to build the ring road, Icelanders made the switch in 1968.

Although the switch did officially happen on the appointed day, Icelanders had plenty of time to prepare. For quite some time before the big change, public service announcements instructed Icelanders about the new driving patterns. Some were also anxious at driving on the right at first, so the roads were actually rather empty in the first days of the switch, allowing everyone a little more time to get adjusted.

New Traffic Laws Take Effect in January

car road mountains winter

On January 1, new traffic laws which were passed by Alþingi in June take effect. The laws include significant changes to existing traffic laws, including permitting authorities to ban or limit traffic to reduce pollution, and raising speed limits to 110km/h (68m/h) where opposing lanes are separated and conditions allow. Vísir reported first.

Roundabout rule confirmed

The new traffic legislation has confirmed the Icelandic convention when driving in roundabouts with two lanes: that the driver in the outer lane must give priority to drivers in the inner lane when they are exiting the roundabout. This rule contradicts the convention in most other countries, where the driver in the outer lane has the right of way.

A driver entering a roundabout must use the outer lane if he intends to take the first exit. It is also illegal to switch lanes by the roundabout or within it.

Blood alcohol limit lowered

The new legislation also lowers the maximum blood alcohol level permitted for drivers from 0.05% to 0.02%. Thus, a driver will not be considered safely able to control his vehicle if his blood alcohol level is above 0.02%. However, the penalty limit will remain at 0.05%, meaning drivers will not be penalised unless their blood alcohol level is measured above 0.05%.

Red lights

Some of the changes are simply setting existing regulations firmly into law: for example, banning driving through red lights. The ban exists currently in traffic regulations but is not written into law. The new legislation also states that mandatory driving lights must be always switched on, regardless of circumstances. A ban on the use of smartphones and similar devices while driving has been clarified, for both motor vehicle operators and cyclists.

Cyclists given space

As of next month, cyclists will be permitted to take up the entire lane where the speed limit is 30km/h. Drivers will also be required by law to give cyclists the right of way when turning across a bicycle lane and have a berth of at least 1.5m (4.9ft) when passing cyclists. Cyclists are permitted to bike across pedestrian crossings, but only at walking speed.

No throwing trash

The new laws also institute a complete ban on throwing garbage from vehicles or anything else that contaminates the road or environment. The previous ban on similar actions only applied to materials that could pose a danger or inconvenience to other travellers.

Authorities Look to Raise Fines for Off-Road Driving

The best weapon in the fight against off-road driving is education, according to Minister for the Environment, Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson. He says more people are conscious of the damage caused by off-road driving and wants to look into raising fines.
Evidence of off-road driving can take a long time to disappear naturally. Nature lovers have resorted to fixing damage where they can but if the vegetation is damaged, that can be impossible to fix. Off-road driving is a growing problem in Iceland, as travellers disregard laws. Recently, a Russian social media influencer bragged about his off-road driving. He was prosecuted, however, and had to pay a hefty fine.

This summer, damages have been discovered when mountain roads were opened again for the season. Recently, the Environment agency reported off-road driving in the geothermal area by Sogin in the Reykjanes nature reserve to the police but the tracks will be wiped out in the next few days.
Government agencies put a lot of work into stopping off-road driving, according to Guðmundur Ingi. “I believe education is our main weapon when it comes to off-road driving. But there are also rules and the nature conservation law states that off-road driving is subject to fines, and also that vehicles can be impounded and offenders can even face jail time.”

The police consider every individual case. The minimum fine for off-road driving is 350,000 ISK (€2,477, $2,781) and fines higher than that amount are often issued. “I believe that the basis of the rules is good. It may be that we should raise the fines, and that’s something which I’m very ready to inspect,” minister Guðmundur continued.

The task of educating drivers is mostly handled by rangers. 200 million ISK (€1.4m, $1.58m) were added to the budget for land protection this year, and an extra 300 million ISK (€2.11m, $2.37m) of funds will go towards the cause next year.

Authorities charged individuals for 40 instances of off-road driving in 2018. “Truth be told, the overall management of this matter has improved in the last 5 or 10 years. Both the police along with search and rescue squads, which have started to be more prevalent in the highlands. So rangers, search and rescue teams, and the police are collaborating well in this field. It’s an infinite task which we will just have to continue to fight,” Guðmundur said.

Head to the website of the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration, www.road.is, for further information on road conditions and what is considered off-road driving.

Car Rental Company Introduces Driving Safety Test for Tourists

A pilot program at a Reykjavík car rental is asking tourists to take an informational driving test before leaving with their vehicle. RÚV reports that the test is intended to prepare visitors for Icelandic road conditions and thereby increase safety for all drivers. Although the test is not mandatory, people involved with the pilot hope that it may be made so for all tourists renting cars in Iceland as early as this fall.

The driving test is being offered to tourists renting cars from a single Hertz location on Flugvallavegur road in Reykjavík. (Implementing the pilot at the Keflavík airport would have simply been too difficult given the number of tourists renting cars there.) Although it’s intended to be educational, the driving test is designed in such a way as to hopefully be fun for the takers. It’s composed of ten questions related to the biggest dangers that drivers may encounter when driving in Iceland. These are taken from a database of 73 possible questions and can be changed according to the season, when driving conditions change. The wrong answers to each question are notably absurd, making the right answer is more than obvious.

The test is the brainchild of Ingi Heiðar Bergþórsson, Hertz’s Director of Services and Human Resources, and is being administered in collaboration with the Sjóvá insurance company and ICE-SAR, under the aegis of the Safe Travel program. Ingi Heiðar said that although the pilot test isn’t mandatory, 80% of the tourists who rent from the Flugvallavegur location opt to take it and, in many cases, are thankful for the information it provides. He explained that information placards with much of the same information included on the driving test have been placed on the steering wheels in rental cars for years, but many tourists do not take the time to read these before driving. He took inspiration for the test from similar ones that are administered in New Zealand, where tourists are sometimes even offered discounts on their rental or insurance costs if they take an educational driving test before setting out.

Since the test began being administered in May, Ingi Heiðar says that damage to cars rented at the Flugvallvegur location has gone down, although it’s not possible to say if this is a direct result of the test.

Ingi Heiðar hopes that tests like the one he’s designed will be soon made mandatory as part of the regulations on car rentals in Iceland.

Solid Lines Prevent Tourists from Stopping

Painting a solid line along road shoulders appears to be preventing foreign travellers from making dangerous stops on roads, RÚV reports. Sóley Jónasdóttir, project manager at the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration, says the administration’s employees report seeing fewer drivers stopping in dangerous spots in areas where the simple change was implemented. Sóley attributes the changed behaviour to international regulations. “In many places abroad [a solid line] means you’re not allowed to stop.”

Most drivers in Iceland have observed foreign travellers stopping cars on narrow shoulders or even on roads in order to snap photos, pet horses, or enjoy the view. When drivers park or stop on roads or along shoulders without adequate space, they put themselves and other travellers at risk. Sóley reviewed this problem and published her findings in the fall of 2017. She says such stops are not only dangerous, they also mean added road maintenance costs for the administration.

Most dangerous stops along south coast

“We registered 102 places where it was prominent that tourists were stopping, suddenly and maybe unexpectedly on the side of the road.” Sóley says many of the locations are in fact longer stretches of road where tourists are stopping in different spots, because of one particular view.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the places marked in the study were in South Iceland, which sees the highest numbers of tourists of any region outside the capital area. Sóley observed that drivers were quick to get moving if Road Administration staff stopped nearby in a marked car. Such was not the case if the car was a private vehicle.

More viewpoints needed

Sóley says more rest areas are needed along the Ring Road to prevent drivers from stopping in unsafe locations. She points out, however, that there are no funds specifically earmarked for constructing viewpoints or rest areas in the Road and Coastal Administration’s budget.

Iceland Should Reverse Roundabout Rule

Iceland roundabout rule

Icelanders should reverse the unique rule that grants the inner lane the right of way in roundabouts, according to traffic safety specialist Ólafur Kr. Guðmundsson. Iceland’s parliament is in the process of revising the country’s traffic laws, and Ólafur told Vísir he hopes it will see fit to adopt international traffic regulations which give the outer lane the right of way in roundabouts.

Unique rule contradicts “right of way”

When it comes to exiting roundabouts, driving schools in Iceland teach students that vehicles in the inner lane have the right of way and those in the outer lane must yield. The fact that in most other nations the opposite is true may not have been a problem in the past, but an increase in foreign drivers on Icelandic roads means this difference in regulation is leading to accidents.

Ólafur says he doesn’t know of any nations besides Iceland which grant the inner lane the right of way in a roundabout. “This is the opposite of what other nations do,” he says, adding that Iceland’s rule contradicts one of the fundamental traffic regulations, the so-called “right of way” rule, which in most situations compels drivers to yield to the vehicle to their right.

Cause of property damage

According to Ólafur, the rule discrepancy has led to many accidents in Iceland. He points out one example: the roundabout on Vesturlandsvegur between Reykjavík and Mosfellsbær has been the site of over 70 collisions in just five years, most occurring when drivers are exiting the roundabout. Giving the outer lane the right of way would not only diminish misunderstandings between local and foreign drivers, but also make it easier for Icelanders to drive abroad.

Self-driving software struggles

The forthcoming arrival of self-driving cars is also a reason to reconsider the contrary rule, Ólafur asserts. A self-driving Tesla which he tested in Iceland struggled with the local roundabouts, and it is unlikely such vehicles’ software will take the exceptional rule into account.

While some Icelanders may argue it is more logical to grant the inner lane the right of way, Ólafur doesn’t think they’ll manage to convince other nations to take up the rule. “I think it’s much simpler to teach 300,000 people a new rule rather than transform the whole world. I would start with these 300,000.”

Storm Expected to Hit South of Iceland

Snowstorm Iceland

The Icelandic Meteorological Office has issued a warning for the South of Iceland as winds are expected to ramp up around noon today, RÚV reports. Selected roads on the South coast will be closed later today.

All around the country wind is expected to reach about 15 to 23 meters per second (33 to 51 mph), with winds in the South reaching about 20 to 28 meters per second (44 to 62 mph) and gusts reaching well over 40 (88 mph) in the mountains.

Large automobiles and other vehicles that might be vulnerable against strong gusts of wind are especially advised to keep safe, as many roads around Iceland are quite slippery after heavy snowfall and frost in the last weeks.

Furthermore, The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration has announced the closure of selected roads in the South to ensure road safety. The road between Hvolsvöllur and Vík will be closed around noon and is not expected to open until 4:00 AM Wednesday. Additionally, the road between Núpstaðir and Höfn, that lies through Skeiðarársandur and Öræfi is expected to close around 16:00 PM today and remain so until 10:00 AM Wednesday.

Travellers are urged to follow matters closely on The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration’s website and the website of The Icelandic Meteorological Office.

Vatnsnesvegur Road in Extremely Poor Condition

2018 Vatnsnesvegur, A screenshot from RÚV

Residents of the Vatnsnes area near Hvammstangi in Northwest Iceland have had enough when it comes to Vatnsnesvegur road, RÚV reports. Road 711 is in such extremely poor condition that local parents have requested a permit to homeschool their children. The closest school is in Hvammstangi, an arduous two-hour trip away.

Vatnsnesvegur road is a gravel road which has deteriorated severely in recent years. The road is full of potholes which handle both cars and passengers badly. Residents in Húnaþing Vestra district have repeatedly called for the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration to repair the road, but those pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

Painful travels

Children travelling to school have complained of the conditions, as the cars pass slowly and painfully through the almost destroyed road. Children arrive at their destination in discomfort after the trip according to Þorbjörg Inga Ásbjarnardóttir, a local resident. Some have thrown up en route due to the conditions in the car, while the noise levels in the car are also considerably above noise limits while the school bus traverses the holes. Noise levels have been measured up to 109 Db, as well as an average noise of 98 Db in parts of the road. Noises exceeding 95 Db are considered to be at a dangerous noise level.

The trip takes up to 136 minutes per day in total for children commuting to school via the school bus. In recent times, the total travel time has increased by 20 minutes per day due to the poor condition of the road, as the car trots along the road at a slow, bobbling pace.

Hvítserkur attracts

The road is not only used by local residents, as the tourist attraction Hvítserkur is also accessed by Vatnsnesvegur road. Hvítserkur is a rock formation popular with tourists which doubles as a seal watching site. Residents have repeatedly had to assist travellers in trouble, and in some cases, the travellers had sustained serious injuries due to the road’s condition. The road is ill-traversed by ambulances and provides severe discomfort to an injured person. Numerous cars have overturned in recent years, and a Czech traveller lost her life in 2004.

Homeschooling an option?

Parents have called for a permit to home-school their children for pay, to avoid the discomfort of the arduous journey. The local council has denied the request based on strict regulations which require parents to have certain qualifications in order to be able to homeschool their children. However, the local council will not stop parents from keeping their children at home for one day of the week, according to Guðný Hrund Karlsdóttir, director of the local council. This informal permit will last until the road has been repaired.

The Minister of Transport recently held a meeting with local residents to discuss the road. Aforementioned local resident Þorbjörg states that, even though the meeting was a relative success, it did not reinforce local residents’ belief that it will be repaired any time soon. It’s clear to her that the road is far from a priority, even though most residents show authorities a certain understanding.

The matter was discussed recently in a council meeting with local residents.

Focus on locals, not travellers

Þorbjörg is afraid that authorities will only focus on repairing the part of the road which leads to the tourist attraction Hvítserkur. “I believe that, if repairs are made, they should focus on those places which children are driven to school on a daily basis and have no alternative,” Þorbjörg stated. She continued, “For example the area from Hvítserkur to Route One, as it seems that they are focusing on the areas where tourists are. But I don’t feel sorry for the driving travellers. It’s a choice for them, and they might go there once in their lifetime.” The children, however, have no choice and Þorbjörg doubts that a new road will be ready before her children reach secondary school age. “There are also small children in the area, not yet one year old, and of course it’s important. They have the whole of their schooling left, but it’s important for everybody else in the area as well,” Þorbjörg commented.