Winter driving in Iceland

slippery roads

Dangers of speed and inexperience

On a recent tour, we were driving past Pétursey on the South Coast… On the side of the road was an overturned Mitsubishi Pajero. I was just about to point this out as an example of why you should drive slowly on the icy roads when I spotted people crawling out from under the wreck. It occurred to me that this had just happened and I had to stop to help.

I pulled off the road about 50 metres from the vehicle and as I stepped out of my vehicle, I noticed that the road was quite slippery. It was possible to walk normally but also fairly easy to slide your feet.

slippery roads

As I walked towards the overturned SUV a thick plume of smoke spewed from the exhaust as the engine raced to make sense of its upside-down state. There were people shouting at each other on the other side of the road and we shouted across to make sure they had all escaped from the wrecked car.  Unfortunately, I left my car door open and my vehicle filled with the dense smoke making my car skink all day.

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Mild Shock

They were all safe with a few minor injuries.  The guy who was in the rear seat dislocated his shoulder. No need for my first-aid-kit. The 3 Dutch tourists were in mild shock.  The driver said that she could feel the seatbelt saving her.

Looking at the tyre marks in the snow, it was clear that the vehicle had left the road diagonally. The driver had probably felt a skid and try to steer against it. As the Jeep left the road, the front drivers wheel dug deep into the snow and the vehicle was catapulted onto its roof with the front passenger roof hitting the ground first and hardest.

I gave them a lift to Vik – the nearest town. they were grateful not just for the lift but that they all escaped unharmed.

Kill your speed

Speed is such a killer! On ice the danger increases exponentially as your speed increases. Icelanders typically drive at a normal speed on roads like these. But they are used to these conditions and know how to respond if they do loose control. Tourists then drive at similar speeds without the experience to be able to come out of a skid.

SUVs require experience! People assume that they are safer in such a big vehicle. Actually an SUV has a better chance of turning over than any other passenger vehicle because of its high centre of gravity.

Be safe! Don’t cut costs on tyres, demand good winter tyres on your hire car. Don’t be afraid to test the road, you need to know your traction and you need to know what a skid feels like. If you are driving, don’t let anyone distract you, you may need 100% concentration.

“I could feel the seat-belt saving me!” Quote from one of the passengers.

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If in doubt, there is great information on the Safetravel website.  They will warn you about bad weather and dangerous road conditions.  The road information is updated in real time.  I would avoid the dark blue and any of the difficult conditions.  The worst temperatures for driving are around the zero Celsius mark.  If the water on the road is melting and freezing, the surface becomes very slippery.  At much colder temperatures, the ice becomes rough and the surface dries. The roads are easy to drive when it is 3 degrees below or 3 degrees above 0c.

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By Tony Prower

Tony Prower spent over 15 years photographing the landscapes of Iceland. Tony Prower is a pioneer of the Magic Cloth Technique and ran thousands of photo tours in Iceland over 10 years.

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