Safe Driving In New Zealand

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Read about 'Safe Driving In New Zealand' on USAVE, the place for all things car rental.

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.

South Island Highways

The Top 10 NZ Road Rule Basics

Keep these 10 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.

  1. You must stop at red traffic lights (there are no left turn rules as in North America).
  2. If two opposing cars are turning right in traffic, turn on the offside (do not cross each other).
  3. Avoid overtaking without using a designated passing lane.
  4. Do not cross a solid yellow line running along the centre of the road in your lane (this is a no passing line).
  5. The vehicle must come to a complete stop at all stop signs.
  6. Understand what the road signs mean before departure. (link to road signs section).
  7. When turning at an intersection, always give way to pedestrians using the crossing.
  8. Be mindful of cycle and bus lanes found in most larger cities in New Zealand.
  9. As a general rule, give way to the right.
  10. Always signal using your vehicles indicators at least 3 seconds before changing direction.

Need More?

Learn more about the New Zealand give way rules and key driving skills in the official NZ Road code on the New Zealand Transport Agency website. Or for some quick links on the basic things you should know jump straight in here:

AA Visitor Driver Training Programme

To better prepare visitors for New Zealand road rules and typical driving conditions the well-known AA organisation has created an interactive video called the Visiting Driver Training Programme, it is a great tool for touching up on your local driving knowledge when driving in New Zealand.

Speed Limit Facts In New Zealand

New Zealand, just like other countries, has its own set of speed limits and restrictions when driving. Here are 8 quick speed limit facts you need to know when driving on New Zealand roads. 

  1. Compulsory Speed Limits. 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.
  2. Open Road Speed Limits. 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.
  3. Speed Limit Changes Are Immediate. 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.
  4. Keep To The Limit. 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.
  5. Pull Over. 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.
  6. Heavy Vehicles. 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).
  7. NZ Police. 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.
  8. Emergency Vehicles. Fire engines and ambulances with their sirens and lights operating require you to pull over and allow them to pass safely.

Motorhomes On South Island Highways

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).

  • Asphalt. The smoothest of the three, asphalt is often used on busy urban roads due to its low noise levels and resistance to wear and tear. Drivers should take care when wet as it can be prone to increased skidding.
  • Chip-Seal. A fairly rough surface made up of a layer of stones set in tar. Chip-seal provides good grip when not worn thin and is used on various highways and roads throughout New Zealand. Look out for recently laid chip-seal as loose stone chip can be flung about causing damage to windscreens and vehicle paintwork.
  • Gravel. Throughout New Zealand there are many roads with gravel formed surfaces, these roads are often narrow with sharp windy corners. Particular care needs to be taken on gravel roads as they are prone to excessive skidding and sliding. Dry road conditions mean there is a likelihood of dust clouds created from other vehicles on the road; visibility may be impaired making driving conditions dangerous. Be aware there are no centre line markings on gravel roads. Increase following distances, drive slowly and keep to your side of the road allowing enough room for oncoming vehicles to pass by, particularly on corners.

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 Driving

In 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:

  • Create, send or read a text message.
  • Make, receive or terminate a telephone call.
  • Create, send or read an email.
  • Create, send or view a video message.
  • Browse the internet or engage in social media interaction
  • Communicate in a similar or any other way.

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 Conditions

Before 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.

  • Metservice New Zealand – For up to date weather conditions and warnings.
  • AA Roadwatch – For traffic flows, accidents and road closures as well as nearby accommodation and petrol stations.
  • NZ Transport Agency – For live traffic updates, roadworks information and road closures around the country.
  • AA Time and Distance Calculator – For reliable distance and time estimates for your journey, as well as route planning.

Slow Down For Kiwis, NZ Road Sign

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. 

South Island Winter Road

Snow Chains

Whether 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:

  • When using chains, make sure they are fitted to the driving wheels (e.g. for a front wheel drive car, chains go at the front).
  • Fitted chains should be firm but not tight.
  • After fitting chains, drive a short distance then check them again to ensure they’re secure.
  • Drive very slowly (no more than 25kph), chains don’t make you immune to accidents.
  • Carry some warm gloves and make sure you have a torch – fitting chains with frozen fingers and fading light can be tricky.

If you’re using a rental car, ask the hire company about the use of snow chains before you head off. In most cases they will be able to provide you with the right chains, as well as a demonstration on how to fit them.

Snow Chains

Black Ice

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:

  • Drive slowly.
  • Avoid sudden braking.
  • Avoid sudden changes in direction.
  • Increase following distances.
  • Take care in patches of road in permanent shadow.
  • Keep an eye out for shiny, watery looking patches on the road

If possible avoid travelling in severe weather conditions.

Winter Driving Checklist

8 key things to take along when going on a winter road trip in New Zealand are:

  1. Warm gloves, hat and a coat.
  2. Snow chains.
  3. A working torch (and spare batteries).
  4. Water and snacks.
  5. A radio and mobile phone.
  6. A map of the area you’re driving through.
  7. Knowledge of current weather and road conditions.
  8. Sunglasses as winter sun can cause severe glare.

Common Road Signs In NZ

New Zealand uses international symbolic signs meaning most of the traffic signs seen on New Zealand roads use the same shapes and symbols as traffic signs all over the world. Here are just some of the road signs you are likely to encounter on your travels in New Zealand, or check out the comprehensive New Zealand Road signs video courtesy of

NZ Stop Sign   give way sign
Stop   Give Way
 no u turn    One Way Bridge
 No U-Turn    One Way Narrow Bridge, Give Way
Railway Crossing   NZ Speed Sign
Railway Crossing   Speed Signs
cattle crossing   Roadworks Sign
Cattle Crossing   Road Works



8 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 8 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!

1. Keep Left

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.

2. 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.

3. Follow The Speed Limits

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 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. Stay Alert

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.

If you are unfamiliar with driving in New Zealand, check out the official New Zealand Road Code. For more information on rental car hire in New Zealand visit USAVE Car Rentals New Zealand.

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