New Zealand is one of the best destinations for a self-drive holiday. Well maintained roads, numerous quality attractions (all within relatively short driving distances), friendly accommodation providers and affordable rental car options provide ample opportunity to explore, relax or seek out a once in a lifetime adventure.
However like anywhere else in the world, it is incredibly important that you follow safe driving practices. Every year, especially around the peak summer season, both locals and visitors are involved in accidents ranging from minor to fatal. As a driver on New Zealand roads, it’s your responsibility to protect yourself, your passengers and also other road users in New Zealand.
New Zealand’s unique terrain, weather conditions and mixture of urban and country style roads make for some fairly challenging driving conditions at times, particularly for those who are used to driving on the opposite side of the road. To give a helping hand we have put together this comprehensive guide to driving safely in New Zealand.
Keep these basic road rules in mind at all times when travelling on New Zealand roads and be sure to familiarise yourself with your rental car functionality before setting off.
Speed Limits In New Zealand
New Zealand compulsory speed signs are considered the maximum legal speed for travelling in ideal conditions. These signs are found on the side of the road and are white with a red border and black numbering. The speed limit on the open road in New Zealand is usually 100 km/h (about 60 mph), in urban areas the speed limit is generally 50 km/h (around 30mph). There are also speed suggestion signs that indicate safe speeds when rounding corners or navigating difficult patches of road.
It is important to note that speed limit changes come in to immediate effect at the sign post. If entering a lower speed limit zone, reduce speed before passing the sign post and if entering a faster speed limit zone, again do not increase speed until you have passed the sign post.
All drivers on New Zealand roads are legally required to drive at speeds slower or equal to the speed limit provided while keeping in mind traffic, weather and road conditions as well as suitable stopping distance requirements.
If driving at slower speeds and a line of vehicles builds up behind you, remember to keep left and where possible pull over for brief periods to allow them to overtake safely. Please note some heavy vehicles, school buses and vehicles towing trailers have legally enforced reduced speed limits (90 km/h for heavy vehicles and towing vehicles, 80 km/h for School buses).
Drivers are also required to pull over in a safe roadside position when encountering a NZ Police vehicle with its sirens and lights operating, it is safest to remain within the vehicle once stopped while waiting for the Police Officer to approach your vehicle. Fire engines and ambulances with their sirens and lights operating require you to pull over and allow them to pass safely.
New Zealand Speeding Fines
Drivers exceeding the compulsory speed limits are liable to incur on-the-spot fines issued by the NZ Police officer in attendance, or by way of one of the many speed cameras operating throughout the country.
Fines do vary and are subject to change but are usually based on the number of kilometres per hour over the compulsory speed limit you were traveling. For example an $80 fine is issued for drivers traveling 11-15km/h over the speed limit, and at the other end of the scale a $630 fine is issued when drivers are traveling 46-50 km/h over the limit. See here for more detail on speeding fines in New Zealand.
If caught exceeding the speed limit by more than 40 kph the drivers licence will be automatically suspended for a period of 28 days.
New Zealand Road Surfaces
The majestic and sometimes rugged landscapes New Zealand has become known for are the very reason travellers are likely to encounter a wide range of road conditions when driving throughout New Zealand.
In New Zealand you will find road surfaces are usually either asphalt, chip-seal or gravel. Each will have an effect on vehicle handling, road grip and driving skills. (Please note: Some rental car companies will have restrictions on driving on gravel roads).
Remember to keep in mind just because some NZ roads can seem deserted at times don’t be fooled into thinking it’s alright to stop in the middle of the road or on a corner. Traffic flows on our roads are unpredictable, heavily laden stock trucks, farm tractors and other heavy vehicles are regulars on our roads, you never know who is coming round the corner.
International Driving Licences And Permits
You can legally drive in New Zealand for up to 12 months if you have either a current driver’s licence from your home country, or an International Driving Permit (IDP). All drivers, including overseas visitors, must carry their licence or permit at all times when driving. You will only be able to drive the same types of vehicles you are licensed to drive in your home country.
The common legal age to rent a car in New Zealand is 21 years or older. Make sure your overseas driver’s licence is current. If your licence is not in English, you should bring an English translation with you or obtain an International Driving Permit. For further details about obtaining a translation or an IDP see the NZ Transport Agency website.
Mobile Phones And DrivingIn New Zealand it is illegal to use a mobile phone while driving unless using hands free technology where the phone does not require the driver to hold or manipulate the phone in any way.
More specifically while driving a vehicle it is illegal to use a mobile phone to:
Emergency situations where the phone is used to call 111 or *555 (Police non-emergency traffic calls) are the only exception. Drivers will be fined $80 if caught using a mbile phone while driving and accumulate 20 demerit points.
Up To Date Weather And Road ConditionsBefore setting out on a New Zealand road trip, it’s important you are up to date on weather activity and road conditions in the area. Monitor the weather for a couple of days before your trip and note down any areas you may come across that are expecting heavy snow, rainfall or hail. There are some great NZ websites for you to check on weather and road conditions.
What To Do If There Is An Accident Whether you are involved in the accident or not it is always best to stop in a safe place; making sure your vehicle won’t obstruct the flow of traffic or cause further problems, check if anyone is injured and call ambulance or police services (dial 111). If able, provide assistance where possible and if directly involved in the accident collect the other driver’s names, phone, address, car registration and insurance details.
The Police must be notified if an injury is involved, if they have not attended the crash you must notify contact them within 24 hours. If your vehicle or any others involved in the accident has damaged private property and the owner is not able to be contacted it is also your duty to notify the Police within 48 hours.
Vehicle insurance providers must be contacted with full details of the accident within a couple of days. For insurance purposes it is recommended that you don’t admit liability.
Winter Driving In New Zealand
The onset of winter in New Zealand can mean extra care is needed when hitting the road. Drivers need to be alert and wary of Black Ice, frosty road surfaces, snow, and heavy rain as well as knowing how to fit snow chains to their vehicle.
Snow fall throughout both New Zealand’s North Island and South Island mountain ranges is quite common during the winter months, however heavy snow affecting state highways and access roads is quite rare but it can occur unexpectedly and it pays to be prepared.
Snow ChainsWhether you’re renting a car, or using your own, it’s important to have chains available when travelling along snow and ice covered roads. Unfortunately with chains, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ option. Chains must be compatible with your vehicle’s wheels. Some points to remember:
Black ice is generally a thin sheet of ice which is dark in appearance, making it difficult to spot on roads. It is common in cooler shaded areas and around waterways and lakes. It can be extremely dangerous for drivers as it appears as a wet patch, rather than icy. Black ice can cause drivers to lose control of their vehicle suddenly resulting in major accidents. If Black Ice is suspected:
Winter Driving ChecklistSome key things to take along when going on a winter road trip in NZ are:
NZ Specific Road Safety Tips To Take Away
If you are travelling to New Zealand from overseas and are planning on hiring a car in New Zealand, here are some things to remember to help you stay safe and on the right side of the law – as well as on the correct side of the road!
In New Zealand, all motorists must drive on the left-hand side of the road. It sounds like a basic rule, but it’s a source of many major crashes on New Zealand roads every single year. There are billboards and signposts on a number of major roads to remind you, but you need to make a conscious effort. Pay special attention when turning, as this is when people often get mixed up and turn into the wrong lane.
Always Wear Your Seatbelt
Drivers and passengers must wear seat belts at all times, children under the recommended age must be restrained in fully compliant child safety seats at all times while driving.
Follow The Speed LimitsThe speed limit on the open road in New Zealand is usually 100 km/h (about 60 mph), in urban areas the speed limit is generally 50 km/h (around 30 mph). Drivers must obey these speed limits, along with speed suggestion signage that indicates safe speeds when rounding corners or navigating difficult patches of road.
Look Out For One Lane Bridges
Some of New Zealand’s roads have bridges which are only wide enough for one vehicle at a time. When there is already a vehicle on the bridge vehicles coming from the opposite direction must stop and wait for them to pass before entering the bridge. Warning signs will alert drivers a one lane bridge is ahead, drivers must slow down and be prepared to stop and give way. The smaller red arrow indicates which lane has to give way.
Respect The Conditions
Visitors can underestimate how fast New Zealand weather can change. If the road becomes wet and slippery, immediately drop your speed. Ice and snow are common hazards in winter, so if you plan on driving your rental car anywhere with a chance of snow, snow chains are highly recommended.
Take Regular Breaks
Stopping to rest is important. Fatigued drivers make poor decisions and are more likely to forget to keep left if that isn’t natural to them. It’s harder to judge speeds and distances and easier to miss a curve if you’re tired. New Zealand’s roads are filled with tea rooms, cafes, parks and rest stops where you can get a drink of water, something to eat, take a walk for some fresh air, or just rest and refocus for the trip ahead.
Watch Out For Animals
International drivers may be surprised to discover at times they might be sharing the road with wild or domestic animals. Predominantly found in rural areas, goats, possums, rabbits, sheep, cattle and horses are regularly seen on New Zealand roads. When coming across these animals whether they are being driven in mobs or alone, drivers should immediately slow down and be prepared to react to the unexpected. Animals do not know the road rules and are likely to run in front of your vehicle if startled. It may be necessary to stop or pull off the road to allow them to pass, or drive slowly through mobs of stock as instructed by the farmer.
Look ahead, use rear vision mirrors to look to the side and behind while driving, moving your eyes regularly while driving builds a greater awareness and means you are more likely to spot potential hazards or problems as they arise giving greater reaction times. In case of emergency, contact the NZ Police, Fire or Ambulance services by dialling 111.