Updated: Jun 7, 2020
If you’re planning to drive during your Icelandic vacation, then it’s a good idea to get your head around the country’s traffic laws before you leave home. Falling foul of a traffic police officer isn’t going to be the highlight of your holiday, so it’s best avoided. Here’s what you need to know about Iceland’s traffic laws.
On which side of the road do Icelanders drive?
First, the basics: Icelanders drive on the right side of the road. This keeps the country in line with the majority of European countries – only four countries (the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta) drive on the left so driving on the right side of the road is exactly what you’d expect. If you’re travelling from Europe or from another country that drives on the right such as Canada or the United States, driving in Iceland is going to be a breeze. If you from Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or one of the other countries that drive on the left, you’ll take to your new road position like a duck to water thanks to Iceland’s light traffic and well signposted roads.
Licence requirements and age limits in Iceland
You’ll need a valid driving licence, held for at least a year. Although Icelandic drivers can get their licence from the age of 17, if you are renting a car, that minimum age rises to 20 years old for a car and up to 23 or even 25 years old for some larger vehicles such as motorhomes. That makes sense, as car rentals are a slightly more risky thing than driving a car you’re familiar with (and if it’s your own, probably want to look after more carefully). You’ll also need a valid credit card to rent a car. Credit cards are also going to come in handy when it comes to refuelling, for instance. Insurance is compulsory, by the way, so expect to see at least the basic package included in your rental agreement.
Speed limits in Iceland
It goes without saying the drivers are required by law to stick within the speed limits when travelling in Iceland. In urban areas, that’s likely to be capped to speeds of no more than 50km per hour in built up roads and often as low as 30km per hour. Though you won’t find speed cameras unless you’re driving through tunnels, traffic police enforce speed limits. Those limits assume good road conditions. If visibility is poor or the road surface is slippery, it may not be safe to approach anything like these kinds of speeds. Driver discretion is expected, as is the common sense to leave a safe distance between you and the vehicle in front in case you need to stop suddenly or unexpectedly.
On the open road, such as while driving on the ring road, the speed limit is 90 km per hour. Mountain roads with gravel surfaces and rougher terrain won’t be as safe, and the speed limit reflects that lack of grip. 80km per hour is the maximum on such roads, and they’ll often warrant keeping the speed down to far less than that, particularly if it’s wet or icy. Driving off-road is illegal in Iceland.
What other traffic laws should you be aware of?
Iceland traffic laws aren’t confined to speed limits, however, and there’s more you’ll need to know. One of the most important regulations is concerned with safety. Passengers and drivers are required by law to wear seatbelts while on the move, whether they are travelling in the front of the car or not. Even on Iceland’s relatively quiet roads, it’s not unheard of for drivers to have an accident serious enough to roll the car. Wearing a seatbelt can quite literally be a lifesaver in such cases.
Another safety-related rule is that you must never drive while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. By all means, try a glass of Icelandic Brennivin but do so after you’ve parked the car and make sure all that alcohol is out of your system by the time you pick up your car keys again the following morning. Reckless driving comes with stiff penalties. If you cause harm as a result of your actions behind the wheel, expect the authorities to throw the book at you. Manslaughter charges are relatively common if there is a fatality caused by a driver who's been speeding or drink driving and rightly so.
Headlights in Iceland
Car headlights should be switched on day or night. In Nordic countries, this is common. Short days during the winter and the likelihood of visibility altering in changeable weather year-round make this an essential law to ensure driver and passenger safety. It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining and the skies ahead are as blue as they come, you still need to leave those headlights on. Be aware that the long hours of daylight in summer can play tricks on your mind. Keep an eye on the time and ensure you take regular breaks. Driving while tired can be very dangerous indeed.
Phone and driving safety
A more recent addition to the rule book is that you can’t drive while using a mobile phone. It’s surprisingly easy to forget to concentrate on the road while using the phone. Texting and making calls are forbidden while you’re on the road in Iceland. The fines for driving while using a mobile phone without a hands-free kit went up dramatically in May 2018 in response to growing concerns that road users weren’t fully focused on their driving. It was the first rise in a decade, from 5000ISK to 40000ISK, and long overdue. Even with a hands-free kit, it’s wise to leave the calls until you’ve safely pulled over. Driving in an unfamiliar country needs your full concentration.
Are winter tyres compulsory in Iceland?
You might expect there to be a rule governing the use of winter tyres, given the likelihood of snow and ice in the winter months. In fact, many websites insist that Iceland winter tyres are mandatory during some months. Actually – and you can read it for yourself on the Icelandic Transport Authority’s website – the rules are mostly about the depth of tread that’s required and whether or not you need studded tyres. The latter are allowed only from 1 November to 14 April and during that time you must have a minimum tread of 3mm. Rental companies will ensure the tyres fitted are appropriate but it’s always wise to double check.
Driving in towns and cities in Iceland
In urban areas, you’ll need to be aware of conventions regarding rights of way and so on. Obviously, when driving in traffic you can cause all sorts of issues with other drivers if you don’t pull out when you have right of way or vice versa. If you’re behind the wheel of a car in Iceland, then be especially vigilant at roundabouts. In Iceland, if you are in the inside lane of a two-lane roundabout, you have priority over road users on the outside lane. The reverse is true in some other countries, so if that’s the case, you’ll need to be mindful of the need to fall in line with local rules rather than drive as you would at home. It’s less of a concern outside Reykjavik, where you’ll encounter fewer roundabouts, but it pays to be aware nevertheless.
Much of what we’ve covered here is common sense, and if you’re a careful driver at home, you’ll instinctively do the same when you’re driving in Iceland. Be aware of the law, but don’t let it stop you from renting a car and hitting the open road. Iceland’s wonderful landscapes are waiting to be explored.