Driving in NZ

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Driving is slow going in NZ. The open road speed limit is 100kph, but on many roads you’ll be lucky to average more than 80-90 kph. Take it easy and enjoy the scenery, that’s the Kiwi way.

Licensing

Driver licenses from the UK and many other countries automatically allow you to drive in NZ. You must carry your license with you whenever you’re driving.

Drink-driving is becoming increasingly frowned upon and random breath tests are commonplace. The limit is quite tight (currently 250µg per litre of breath for drivers over 20).

The roads

The roads are kept in good repair, but most roads are only one lane in each direction with occasional middle passing lanes. NZ drives on the left – the same as UK, AU and a few other places. All distances are measured in kilometres.

The geography is brutal, and many roads don’t have crash barriers. Wherever there’s a bend in the road that you need to slow down for, there will be a sign giving an advisory maximum safe speed – these are really accurate, assuming good conditions. If the sign says you need to slow down to 20 kph (and some of them do), you really do need to slow down to 20 kph unless you want to bring your holiday to a sharp and unpleasant end.

Mountain drives can be taxing on both car and driver. Check your tyres and fluid levels before you set off, and make sure you know how to use engine braking properly. Most cars are automatic and most gearboxes have some form of overdrive cancel – ask the rental company to show you this if necessary, they’ll appreciate you wanting to take care.

The car may be king here, but this leads to traffic congestion. Central Auckland traffic is pretty bad and we recommend avoiding it during peak hours. Traffic in Wellington and Christchurch is also pretty gnarly in rush hour.

Motorways and Expressways

There are a handful of motorways in this country, mostly in Auckland. You may also encounter expressways, which are a sort of lesser motorway; high speed, still better than ordinary open road, but not fully up to motorway standards as you know them.

Toll roads

There are a very small number of toll roads in NZ. At present there are three: the Auckland Northern Motorway (part of State Highway 1), Tauranga Eastern Link (part of SH 2), and the Takitimu Drive (central Tauranga).

Tolls are modest (around $2 for cars). There are no toll booths; collection and enforcement is via automatic number-plate recognition, like the London congestion charge.

Tolls can be paid online or in person at a small number of service stations. In our very limited experience the service station kiosks can be busy and charge an extra admin fee; you’re better off paying online if you can.

Tolls are due within five days. If you’re in a hire car and don’t pay, the hire company will bill you for the toll, the NZTA non-payment admin fee, and their own administration fee.

Rural oddities

Be prepared to encounter livestock on the road in rural areas, particularly being moved between fields. Animals shouldn’t be left out unsupervised; if you come across a hazard report it to the police by calling *555 on a cellphone.

There are some gravel roads if you get off the beaten track. You’ll likely encounter locals taking these faster than you would; a dust cloud in the distance is probably caused by other traffic.

Single-lane bridges are common in rural areas. These feature the same priority signs and rules as in Europe.

There are a handful of unusual constructions where road and rail share the same space. For the purposes of controlling traffic, they are treated as large level crossings. Don’t freak out; just apply the standard level crossing rules. There isn’t much rail traffic, and what there is proceeds very slowly.

A very small number of very remote roads are forbidden to rental vehicles as they’re super hazardous. Your hire contract specifies them.

Beaches

It is legal to drive on the beach (but check your hire contract, the insurance might not cover it). Standard open road rules apply. We don’t advise doing this without support from a knowledgeable local and a careful check of the tide times; get it wrong and you’ll end up in the drink and on the national news.

You can still have the beach road experience from a tour bus. Day trips take you along Ninety Mile Beach to Cape Reinga at the very end of State Highway 1. It’s a fun day out with a number of stops en route; several operators offer this, with departure points around Paihia, Kaitaia and the surrounds.

Speed

The open road speed limit is generally 100kph. In town it’s usually 50kph.

In an active school zone (school time/home time, during term) the limit is 40kph. These are signed and often have manned crossing patrols. When passing a school bus which has stopped to let children on or off, the limit is 20kph. Buses on school service carry a dayglo SCHOOL plate on the rear.

NZ Police enforcement policy varies. They are known to have crack-downs on holiday weekends, during the summer peak season (Dec-Jan) and in school zones at the start of term. During a blitz they will issue a ticket if you’re just 4kph over the posted limit.

A recent innovation is encouraging people to not drive too slowly for the conditions. As so many of our roads are single carriageway, slow drivers cause traffic to build up behind them, leading to frustration and unsafe overtakes by the held-up traffic. The slow driver who causes such jams may be ticketed for “careless or inconsiderate use of a motor vehicle”. Most roads have places you can pull over to let traffic pass, though we’ve found that it sometimes takes the eyes of a hawk to spot them in time to pull in safely.

Other drivers

Kiwi drivers are, honestly, pretty bad. There’s a national tendency to drive too close, to run red lights, to speed, and never, ever to use indicators. Some drivers are uninsured, and this is legal*; you might be grateful to pay the extra for insurance that covers all your costs if you get hit by one.

* Third-party insurance is not compulsory because insurance only covers damage to property. Medical expenses in case of accident are covered by a government body, regardless of fault, and it is explicitly impossible (by law) to sue for them.

You should be very alert to other tourists, many of whom will be as jetlagged as yourselves, and who may be used to driving on the right. Canny Kiwi drivers keep their headlights on during the day when out of town, especially in tourist areas.

A particular bugbear is the driver who needlessly toodles along at 80kph in a 100kph zone, then speeds up when they reach a passing lane. Don’t be that guy (see above about inconsiderate use of a vehicle).

Weather conditions

Flash flooding and landslips

Extreme weather does affect our roads, causing landslips and washouts from time to time. If you are planning a route through remote and/or mountainous countryside, check the weather forecast beforehand, and try to avoid these routes in extreme weather. You may want to make both the place you are leaving from and the place you are travelling to aware of your plans so that the alarm can be raised if something happens to you en route.

Snow

If you visit NZ in winter, there is a likelihood of snow in the mountains, particularly in the South Island. (Ski season is approximately June–October.) Take chains with you in your vehicle, and know how to fit them; check the conditions before setting out.

NZ does not salt its roads; grit is used only in the mountains. Ice can be a real problem, and many drivers are not used to driving on snow and ice. This isn’t as bad as it sounds as winter daytime temperatures are usually high enough to thaw any overnight ice in large parts of the country.