How to Drive in New Zealand
Backpacking New Zealand often involves a lot of driving. From Cape Reinga all the way down to Bluff, there are thousands of awesome sights to be seen and making your way around by car offers incomparable freedom. However, driving in New Zealand may be a bit more challenging than what you are used to. New Zealand’s roads are often narrower, windier and not as well maintained than what you may be used to at home, for instance, some of our main roads are gravel roads! With that, the rules can sometimes be a little different as well. So just to be safe, here is a quick reminder of the most important rules to driving in New Zealand.
1. Keep Left!
Drive on the left-hand side of the road in New Zealand. A bit like in the UK and Australia, New Zealand decided to go against the flow and have people driving on the left side of the road. This means that you need to check on your right when entering a roundabout. Our tip: to be safe, always check both sides.
2. Seat Belt Fastened!
Everyone in your vehicle must wear a seat belt at all time. In New Zealand, it is the responsibility of the driver to ensure that everybody abides by this rule. If somebody is caught not wearing a seat belt, both the driver and the offender will be fined.
3. Respect the Speed Limit!
Keep at or below the speed limit. Like in most countries, the speed limit signs are obvious bearing a big red circle and a black number in its centre. The basic speed limits in New Zealand are 30km/h near roadworks and dangerous zones, 50km/h in cities and towns, and 100 km/h on highways. Our tip: remember, speed limits are “limits” and not a target.
4. Slow Down Before Corners!
Because New Zealand has a lot of corners! You never know what’s hiding on the other side of a corner. Always slow down to observe the recommended speeds on turns and bends. The recommended speeds are displayed in diamond-shaped yellow sign with an arrow signalling the shape of the turn. The recommended speed marked in black under the arrow sign.
Stopping at red lights and stop signs is a basic driving rule all over the world. There is a big difference between “Stop” and “Give way” signs- you actually have to make the stop in front of a “Stop” sign. Failing to do so will put you in real trouble with New Zealand Law enforcement.
6. Check for Traffic!
A lot can hide around corners, bends and one-lane bridges. Many roads in New Zealand are narrow with pretty tight corners. If a huge truck or campervan is coming out of that very corner it will require skills to pass safely. Make sure to slow down and check if it is safe to pass. One lane bridge also features as a priority system on New Zealand’s roads. If you are on the side of the road with the black arrow, you have priority. However, you must let the incoming traffic pass if they have already engaged on the bridge.
7. Pass with Care!
Always check that it is safe to overtake vehicle beforehand and only engage when you are 100% sure that it is safe. Keep in mind that crossing a solid yellow line is illegal in New Zealand.
Try to keep your driving to about 2 hours maximum. Take regular breaks along the way. Besides, there is a lot to discover along the roads of our wonderful country so consider breaks as an invitation to check our that view or some stunning waterfalls.
9. Drive to the Conditions!
Reduce speed when the conditions are rainy, icy, snowy, foggy, windy, etc. There are already plenty of hazards on the New Zealand roads, and extreme weather only makes them worse, so take care! On top of that, a lot of New Zealand roads are constantly being maintained and you are likely to find roadworks along your way daily. The speed limit along road works is 30km/h.
10. Take Your Time!
The New Zealand roads are not easy to drive and it very often takes much longer than expected to cover the distance. Make a plan before departure and check the average driving time for your trip. Don’t plan according to the distance. If in doubt, ask a local or your accommodation provider, they will also be able to tell you more accurate driving times.
11. Don’t Drink and Drive!
That seems obvious but a quick reminder does not hurt: drinking and driving is a crime in New Zealand. Heavy fines and even jail time can be given to offenders. That’s just the worst way to cut your holiday short.
12. Don’t Answer the Phone!
As in most countries in the world, it is illegal to use your mobile phone while driving in New Zealand. If you need to pick up that phone call or respond to that text, find a safe spot to stop on the side of the road – there is always a good place to stop a few minutes away.
13. Know How to Use Roundabouts!
If roundabouts aren’t common where you are from, then they can seem a little confusing when you first approach one. First, when approaching a roundabout, indicate left to show that you intend to exit left or right to show that you are going more than halfway around the roundabout to exit right. You don’t need to indicate if you are exiting the roundabout straight ahead. You must give way to all traffic that will cross your path from the right.
14. Know the Give Way Rules
Speaking of giving way, it’s also important to know where to give way for different scenarios. For instance, you know you need to give way to traffic approaching from the right on roundabouts. Additionally, you need to give way to vehicles coming from straight ahead if turning right, to all vehicles on the top of a T-intersection if you are on the bottom of the T (think “top of the T goes before me!), and to vehicles turning left if you are turning right.