Drive on the Left

Traffic in New Zealand drives on the LEFT, as in Australia, the UK and Japan. Very few New Zealand roads are divided, and if you normally drive on the right, it can be very easy to slip back into the habit. Many fatal crashes involving overseas tourists in New Zealand have been as a result of the tourists driving on the wrong side of the road.

The left-most lane on a multi-lane road is the slow lane while the rightmost lane is the fast lane. Keep to the left lane(s) unless you are passing.

Tourists should note that there is increased scrutiny of their driving due to a large number of crashes and fatalities involving tourists in 2014 and the early part of 2015, particularly in the South Island. Rental car companies will revoke contracts and tourists may find themselves unable to hire a car, or worse, end up in court to answer dangerous driving charges. 

Speed limits

Speed limits are in kilometres per hour and are signed by European style signs (a number in a circle with a red border). A white circle with a black slash indicates an open road speed limit (ie. 100km/h).

The speed limit in towns is generally 50 km/h, although urban fringes, major urban arterials and small communities may have a 60, 70 or even 80 km/h speed limit.  The open road speed limit, on rural roads and most motorways is 100km/h. Temporary speed limits of 30km/h are common through road works.

All traffic must slow to 20km/h past an accident scene or a stopped school bus.

Note that if you are towing a trailer or driving a vehicle with a gross weight over 3500kg (including many large campervans), you are limited to a maximum speed of 90km/h, even if the speed limit posted is higher.

Speed cameras are in widespread use throughout New Zealand.  They are deployed either in fixed locations, usually in a box mounted on a pole beside the road, or mobile, usually in the rear of a station wagon, or van.  In the past the mobile units were relatively easy to spot, as the station wagon would have the rear door raised, however recently they have started using tinted glass, and leaving the door closed.  They are also using a variety of vehicles.  Be wary of any vehicle parked beside the road along the highway.

Speed camera vehicles are not allowed to be hidden, so they can't park behind billboards, or trees.  They can, however, be made less conspicuous, so they could be parked in shaded areas, or just over the crest of a hill.

Speed limit tolerances range between 4 and 10 km/h. If you are caught by a police officer doing 40km/h or more over the posted speed limit, your driver's licence will be suspended on the spot for 28 days.

Roads

National highway routes are called "State Highways" ("state" meaning "of the government", not "a division of a country"). State Highway 1 runs the length of both islands, with State Highways 2 to 5 and 10 to 58 in the North Island, and State Highways 6 to 8 and 60 to 99 in the South Island. They are numbered roughly north to south.

Outside the major urban areas, motorways (freeways) and expressways with grade separated interchanges are rare. Most of New Zealand's main roads, even the State Highways, consist of undivided roads with one lane in each direction and at grade intersections.

Most roads are paved with "chip-seal" - a mix of bitumen (tar) and aggregate (gravel). Watch out on newly laid chip-seal - loose gravel can be flung up by passing cars. Asphalt is used on main roads near urban centres, while rural roads with a low traffic volume use gravel. Slow down on gravel roads - it can be like driving on ball bearings.

White dashed centre lines are painted down the middle of most rural roads. No overtaking zones are marked by solid yellow lines - if there is a solid yellow line on your side of the centre line, you are not permitted to overtake. A dashed yellow line will warn you of an approaching no overtaking zone.

Travel Times

Many foreign tourists underestimate the times it takes to travel between destinations in New Zealand. Remember, outside the main cities, most State Highways consist of undivided roads with one lane in each direction, often heavily trafficked, with at grade intersections and few overtaking or passing opportunities and with many corners, often with speed advisories. 

The general rule of thumb is to allow one hour to do 65 kilometres (40 miles) with only essential stops (i.e. fuel, toilets, lunch). A whole day's driving is 400 km (250 mi) for a foreign tourist.

Signs 

NO LEFT OR NO RIGHT TURN

The signs for no left and no right can be confusing for some. Signs for no left turn and no right turn could be on the left. If you are used to driving on the right, be careful you don't turn the wrong way into a one-way street. 

Road signs in New Zealand follow international conventions.  The speed restriction sign is a red circle with a white centre.  The permitted speed is in black letters.  The open road sign is a white circle with a black diagonal stripe.  These are posted at the entrance to all towns and settlements.

Parking signs are blue with white lettering.

Road works and caution signs are orange and white with black lettering

Advisory signs such as corner speed limits are yellow with black lettering. 

Insurance

It is important to arrange travel Insurance to cover your rental vehicle excess or bond on your rental car or motorhome hire while in New Zealand. 

This excess can range from $2000 to $6000 and it is cheaper to get travel insurance rather than paying the rental company bond waiver insurance.

Parking

In towns & cities you may only park in designated parking spaces.  These will be either parallel or angle parks, and may be controlled by meters of varying types, or signs.  NOTE: Contrary to the practice in some countries, in New Zealand it is not permitted to park facing oncoming traffic, you MUST park on "your" side of the road (unless the road is one-way). Infringement notices are issued for incorrect or illegal parking. Broken yellow lines along the side of the curb in NZ mean NO PARKING: you'll be fined!

Intersections

Road users should obey all road signs and traffic signals at intersections.

At traffic signals, a yellow light means you must stop unless you cannot stop safely short of the intersection. A red light means stop and stay stopped until you see a green light - there is no left-turn on red.

At roundabouts, give way to any traffic already in the roundabout and any traffic on your right. Before entering the roundabout, signal your intended direction as if it were a normal intersection - left for left, right for right, and none for straight. Signal left as you exit the roundabout.

If you are on a STOP sign, you must come to a complete stop and then give way to all other traffic. If you are on a Give Way sign, you don't have to come to a stop. You must give way to all other traffic except those on a Stop sign (they give way to you).

If two or more vehicles are facing no signs or signals or are facing the same signs or signals, then the following rules apply.

  • If you are turning, give way to traffic not turning. Note if you are leaving the centre line, you are deemed to be turning.
  • If you are on the terminating road of a T-intersection, give way to traffic on the continuing road ("Top of the T goes before me") 
  • If you are turning right, give way to traffic turning left into the same road.
  • If you are waiting at a stop sign, traffic waiting at a give way sign opposite has priority even if you are travelling straight through and the other vehicle is turning across your path.
  • In all other cases, give way to your right.

Before March 2012, the left-turn vs. right-turn rule was the other way around (left-turning traffic had to give way to right-turning traffic). However, at some intersections, the rule change did more harm than good, and as a result, Give Way signs were installed to hold back left-turning traffic in accordance with the old rule (as traffic on a Give Way sign must give way to traffic that is not on one). The Give Way signs may not be obvious, so if you are turning right and a vehicle coming towards you signaling left stops, assume they are on a Give Way sign and they are giving way to you.

Fuel

Petrol (gasoline) and diesel are available throughout New Zealand. Petrol grades are 91 unleaded "Regular" (green handle) and 95 unleaded "Premium" (red handle), with 98 unleaded (blue or purple handle) available at some petrol stations in main cities. Diesel and petrol are often on the same pump, so watch what fuel you are putting into your vehicle.

Be aware that in some areas, it can be 150km between petrol stations, so make sure you keep your tank full.

Overnight Parking (Camper Vans)

Many camper van drivers think that because it is permissible to leave a vehicle in a park overnight, that it is also acceptable to camp overnight in New Zealand towns.  This is NOT THE CASE.  Most New Zealanders take a dim view of visitors abusing hospitality by setting up camp in towns.  Many towns, such as Queenstown, Wanaka & Te Anau, have local by laws prohibiting overnight camping, and you'll be woken at 4-5am and told to move on. However even in the absence of such by laws, or signs prohibiting the practice, you should not assume that it is acceptable .

Most towns have motor parks, and camping grounds where you can park, and there are many opportunities for "Freedom Camping" outside of towns and built up areas.  Alongside rivers and lakes, except within a town boundary, in laybys along the highway, or in designated camping areas within National Parks, you are welcome to camp to your hearts content. But make sure you have toilet facilities with you and also take all rubbish when you leave. - "take only photo's and leave only footprints".

This website has a lot of good info on freedom camping.

More information

For more information about driving in New Zealand, there is a free tourist driving quiz with the official Road Code questions,

and see the page from New Zealand AA (Automobile Association), "Visitors to NZ"  

and  see the page from the New Zealand Transport Agency, "New resource to give visitors quick tips on safe driving in NZ" 

and  see the page from the New Zealand Transport Agency, "Driving in NZ  in English. PDF document in various languages"

and see the pages from the New Zealand Transport Agency, "Traffic and Travel Information"  and "Driving Safely"

 ?  'What's different about driving in New Zealand?' ? brochure deleted ?

Official Tourism website ~ Driving in New Zealand   

Essential New Zealand Travel App ~ Android and Apple