Published June 29, 2018
When we last spoke with Dr. Kunz, he discussed with us many of the various and sundry ways that people can die while visiting in Iceland. This time around, he wants to talk about one of the more common ways a tourist can die in Iceland: on the road.
“Iceland has a unique infrastructure and climate; we have a lot of winds, strong rain, and gusts,” he says. “We have a lot of accidents which are deadly and can be prevented.”
As you might imagine, road safety in Iceland starts with the right vehicle.
“I’m not going to name any companies here,” he says. “But Iceland is expensive, and people want to rent cheap cars, so they rent cheap campers, which are equipped in a way that’s OK to sleep in, but they’re just cheap cars. So when they get in a collision, they just crumble up. I’m not saying that everyone has to have expensive cars, but you should think about maybe investing a little bit more.”
Part of this advice involves Iceland’s driving terrain. Dr. Kunz advises that no one take an “F-road” — a country backroad whose route number begins with F — without four-wheel drive. You should also consider that Iceland has plenty of one-lane bridges that rely on the honour system, letting drivers decide themselves who gets the right of way. There are also a lot of blind rises, which will require you to slow down a lot and drive closer to the side of the road.
Icelandic weather also plays a part
Combine these road conditions (and remember, the Icelandic road system is not entirely paved) with the characteristic weather, and things get a little more dangerous. Wind, rain, snow and ice can all make things difficult, but there are other things to bear in mind. For example, strong gusts of wind can actually be stronger when driving past a mountain. Even though driving across an open plain leaves you vulnerable, cold gusts that have gathered on top of a mountain can come thundering downwards like an invisible avalanche.
Even the sun can be a problem, Dr. Kunz points out. In more southerly climes, the sun might hang out near the horizon for a few minutes; in Iceland, it can do this for much longer. “So if you’re driving towards the sun, you have the sun in your face for a couple of hours,” he says, advising people have sunglasses at the ready when driving at dawn or dusk.
“We have people coming here who have no experience with driving in snow,” he adds. “There are even people who have no experience with driving in rain.” In some countries, people have taken their driving lessons in a simulator, ill preparing them for conditions here.
Watch your meds, and your sleep
As one might also suspect, what substances are in your bloodstream can also affect your driving. Yet for as much emphasis is placed on alcohol and illicit substances, 20% of car deaths related to substances were actually attributable to prescription medication. Are these people using meds recreationally, or did they just develop a high tolerance? Dr. Kunz says there are no easy answers.
“The problem with interpreting toxicological levels, when it comes to medication, we know what should be in the blood when it’s therapeutic,” he explains. “If one develops a tolerance, if you increase your medication slowly, you won’t feel it as well as you would be increasing it fast. But we don’t know how fast this person increased their volume of medication, so we don’t know if they’ve built up a tolerance or not.”
Either way, you should always have in mind that a lack of sleep by itself can impair your driving, and exacerbate the effect that alcohol and drugs may have on you. If you spent the night in a freezing camper and barely got four hours, your driving is impaired in a way comparable to having a few drinks before hitting the road. Be sure you’re well rested before you get behind the wheel.
Holy crap, use some common sense
Some causes of death on the Icelandic roads are not only preventable; they’re the result of a complete lack of common sense.
“Then there are those who get into accidents because they stopped their car because they saw a horse, or the Northern Lights,” Dr. Kunz says. He recounts one fatal accident last year that involved a tourist standing in the middle of Route 1, taking pictures of the Northern lights. Another oncoming car, also looking at the Northern Lights, didn’t see the tourist, striking and killing him. “It should be common sense that even if there’s not much traffic, there’s still traffic. Do your sightseeing off the road.”
We all know Icelandic horses are pretty, and you might be tempted to just stop your car in the middle of some quiet country road to snap a few pics. Do yourself and other drivers a favour: pull over at least a metre from the side of the road first, and get out on the non-road side, before taking photos or gazing upwards at the Northern Lights.
Bookmark these links!
Finally, there are online resources, all in English, that can mean the difference between life and death if you check them first.
There’s the English version of the Icelandic Meteorological Office, giving you live up-to-the-minute updates on weather conditions all over the country. The Icelandic Transport Authority also recommends visiting SafeTravel.is for weather and road conditions in English. Road.is provides more detailed information on road conditions, too.
All in all, it’s pretty easy to not die on the road in Iceland: get the right vehicle for where you want to drive, get enough sleep, watch your meds, mind the weather, and above all, pay attention and use some common sense. We’d like it if you could visit again, after all.