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Summer is on its way and along with it lots of people who plan to travel to Iceland. Some stay in Reykjavík and its close surroundings while others may want to explore the country further. Renting a car is the easiest and the most convenient way of traveling around and getting the know Iceland better, but there are things on our roads that may surprise you a little bit. Here’s what you need to look out for while driving in Iceland.
Number one danger on Icelandic roads is no doubt the weather. It can change within a moment’s time from lovely and sunny to a horrific storm, and storms here should always be taken very, very seriously. A storm in Iceland is not just wind and rain, it’s enough wind to throw small rocks around, topple cars even, and rain may be more like a horizontal, unending wave of water than what usually passes as rain.
What to do:
Keep an eye on the weather forecast page (link) for these words: búist er við stormi (= a storm is expected). If one is in the area you’re in do not head out, at least not without asking a local person their opinion on whether or not driving in the oncoming weather is a feasible idea. If you’re told to not go, don’t go, Icelanders are likelier to play the danger down than up. They’ve also been here far longer than you and if they wouldn’t drive in it, then driving in it is a bad idea.
Roads here may be closed at any time of the year for various reasons, some of them weather related, some road condition -related. Icy roads mean really slippery roads in Iceland, I’m from Finland and used to think I knew what driving on icy roads is like… and I was wrong, so wrong. At worst there’s nothing you can do, the car just gets entirely out of your control. Besides weather another danger can be the road itself, as roads here may not always asphalted and suddenly driving onto gravel can easily make you slide off the road if you don’t see it coming.
What to do:
Always check whether the road you’re planning to take is open and in driving condition. The easiest place for this is the Vegagerdin web page (link), where road conditions are marked by different colours. Don’t even consider a road that’s marked as impassable and reconsider roads that are marked as icy. If there’s a chain going across the road with a warning sign included the road is impassable, it’s closed, if you drive around the chain you have only yourself to blame when you get stuck in snow and have to call the emergency line for help.
For the latter problem you’re best off by having someone read a map and getting the latest published Icelandic map because gravel roads are well marked on them. Slow down a little when you see the change of road coming and you’ll be fine.
This is a summer problem only but quite a serious one. Sheep graze more or less wild, somewhere in the mountains or wherever they decide to go. They should be always fenced away from roads but fences can break, the sheep may find a way under or around them or just… do some sheep magic trick and somehow end up by the side of the road. Both Icelanders and tourists end up in these accidents so sometimes not even knowing of the problem won’t help, but it’s still better to be prepared than not.
What to do:
Slow down when you see a sheep by the side of the road. They may seem like they’re not going anywhere but right as you’re at them they spook and run under the tires. Be especially careful if you see a lamb on one side of the road and the ewe on the other, it’s almost certain that the lamb will run to its mum when it sees your car coming.
If you accidentally drive over a sheep you should try to find the closest farm and let them know. If a ewe dies it’s especially important that the farmer knows to get the lamb or lambs to safety.
Icelanders drive like mad. Traffic rules are treated like guidelines, speed limits are something for other people (this works both for drivers that want to speed and drivers that want to drive 50 km/h on an 80 km/h road) and signaling your turn is rare, especially when changing the lane. Everyone else on the road is treated as more or less a nuisance and the bigger your jeep the better.
What to do:
Keep an eye on the other drivers and be prepared for anything and everything. Do not trust the other drivers to stay on their lane just because they’re not letting you know they’re planning to change it. Keep a cool head and avoid doing the Icelandic thing – road raging. Another good thing to keep in mind is that Iceland has zero tolerance on DUI. If you have even one beer you have no business behind the wheel and the Icelandic police don’t take “I didn’t know” as an excuse.
On the upside most Icelanders are found in cities, so if you’re going to drive in the countryside all you need to survive is weather, road conditions and sheep! 😀