Driving in Australia
This article is a travel topic
Driving in Australia can be an experience to be savored. The wide-open spaces and magnificent natural scenery is well worth the extra time taken. This guide aims to fully prepare drivers for an Australian driving experience.
Speed and distance in Australia are measured in kilometers. Australians drive on the left-hand side of the road.
Most Australians live on the coast . Roads within and between the cities and towns are generally reliable and in good condition, as are the main highways that join the state and territory capital cities. Although highways between major cities are well-maintained, motorists may travel for hundreds of kilometers between towns or road houses, with no opportunities to re-fuel, purchase refreshments, or use toilets. Road conditions can be difficult in remote areas and the large and less populated areas in the middle of Australia (the "outback"). Not all roads are sealed, and may not be passable in certain seasons or weather conditions. Motorists need to be self-sufficient and prepared when travelling in remote areas. Permits may also be required to travel through certain remote locations.
Legal issues and safety
Driving is regulated by a number of State-based government authorities:
Drivers in Australia require a valid driver's license. Foreign licenses in English are considered valid for driving in Australia for visitors for three months. If your licence is not in English, an International Driving Permit is required, issued in your home country before arrival in Australia.
Use of seat belts is compulsory in Australia for drivers and all vehicle passengers, and infants must be secured with approved safety capsules and harnesses. Seatbelt laws are strictly enforced, and the onus is on the driver to ensure all passengers are buckled in. Penalties apply to the driver of the vehicle, and include demerit points which may lead to license suspension. Usually an on-the-spot fine of up to $500 will be imposed.
Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
A blood alcohol limit of 0.05% throughout Australia. Lower limits apply to learner, provisional, and professional drivers.
Police conduct random breath tests along major routes and back streets, both in cities and in the country. A driver does not have to be driving suspiciously or have committed any driving offence to be stopped by police for a random breath test.
If you are caught driving under the influence of alcohol you will have to make a court appearance. For a first offence a fine and a period of suspension would normally be imposed if there are no aggravating circumstances. Refusing a random breath test is also an offence and similar penalties apply as for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Random drug testing is also in place in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.
In case of an accident involving injury or death to any person, the police and appropriate emergency response authorities must be contacted. Phone the Australian emergency number 000, though 112 also works from mobile phones. Emergency numbers from other countries (such as 911) do not work in Australia.
The driver of any vehicle involved in an accident in which a person may be injured or killed is legally required to stop and render assistance. The penalties for fleeing an accident scene can be severe, even if you are not at fault, which can be up to 10 years imprisonment. You must contact appropriate emergency authorities, but you are not required to give first aid if you have no training.
Persons rendering first aid in good faith in Australia are protected by law and are not at risk of legal action against them. If you can help at an accident scene, always do so.
Each State and Territory has a separate motoring group which offers roadside breakdown assistance, as well as comprehensive road maps, tourist guides, and useful motoring advice from their numerous branch offices. You need to purchase an annual membership in one of these associations to qualify for roadside assistance, but this can be done when lodging a call for help (with an additional fee). Each State association has reciprocal arrangements with the others, so a single membership will do for all of Australia.
The road rules are enforced in Australia.
Speed cameras are used in all states and territories of Australia, with some states using hidden cameras, others preferring obviously placed ones. The strictest place for speed limit enforcement is Victoria, with speed cameras being hidden in unmarked cars, and having low tolerance for excess speed. Police speed traps, and mobile patrols also pull over cars for exceeding the speed limit. Exceeding the speed limit by 10km/h or so will usually result in an on-the-spot fine of around $200 (and demerit points if driving on an Australian licence). Exceeding the speed limit by more than 30km/h can result in a court appearance and possible criminal conviction.
Cameras also monitor red lights, and a similar fine will result.
Drug or alcohol offences invariably result in a court appearance, and a criminal conviction may result.
Many Australian drivers drive a little over the speed limit, but large differences in traffic speeds from the signposted limits are uncommon.
Traffic in Australia's major cities can be congested. As in any other place, it pays to avoid driving in or around the Central Business District (CBD) during peak times when everyone is trying to get from or to work.
One additional hazard unique to driving in Melbourne's CBD and the inner suburbs are trams. Melbourne is known for its extensive tram network (US speakers may know trams as streetcars). There are three tram-related rules which may not be immediately obvious. Normally, cars drive over the tram tracks, and there will be a dotted yellow lane marker left of the "tram lane". The dotted yellow marker means cars are permitted to drive in the tram lane. Sometimes, there will be a solid yellow line next to the tram lane. This indicates that cars are not permitted to drive in the tram lane. In this case, there is often a sign overhead, in the gantry above the road that indicates possible times when cars are not permitted to drive in that lane. Note also that tram passengers have right of way when crossing the road to or from a tram. So do not drive a vehicle past a tram at a stop, unless the tram is stopped at a courdened off stop with barriers.
Perhaps the most infamous amongst Australians, and Melbournians in particular, is the "hook turn", which is unique in Australia to Melbourne's CBD. As many roads in Melbourne's CBD have tram tracks, turning right (remember, Australians drive on the left) suddenly presents a problem, as while you are waiting to turn, you would be in the tram lane, holding up several trams. To get around this problem, the "hook turn" was invented. This involves turning right from the left lane. To execute a hook turn:
Signs indicating whether a hook turn is necessary are hung off tram power lines at the intersection. Do not attempt a hook turn at other intersections.
Speed limits are signposted at regular intervals, and can change frequently. A default 50km/h speed limit applies in urban areas with street lights in the very rare event that there is no signposted speed. Signposted school zones have a 40km/h limit during school travel hours, which is signposted, with South Australian school zones being 25km/h.
Parking in major cities can be difficult, especially in the CBD and around tourist areas, such as beaches. Commercial parking lots charge on an hourly basis, and their fee often depends on the time of day and week you are parking. These can be very expensive in the CBD area.
Cities often have council operated on-street parking that involves a fee payable into a meter next to the spot (or more frequently these days, a machine a few spots down which operates for multiple spots). These spots will have a sign indicating the maximum amount of time you can park there (paying the appropriate fee), and at what times the fee operates.
Parking is policed sporadically, with some areas regularly patrolled and others rarely, but you are never entirely safe parking illegally. Fines are of the order of $100. In areas signposted as "Clearways", parked cars will be towed, at considerable extra expense.
If you are willing to park a few blocks away and walk, it is often possible to find free on-street parking in residential areas near attractions.
Major capitals usually have good public transport within the CBD itself, and this is an alternative to driving between CBD locations once parked.
Some motorways, bridges, and tunnels in major cities require payment of tolls of up to $8. In some cases, a cash payment can be made at tollbooths on the road, but there is an ongoing trend to automating toll collection with the use of radio transponders installed in vehicles. Some roads only have facilities to collect tolls electronically in this way. If you drive on such a road without a transponder, a photo is taken of your vehicle's number plate, and you have a day to phone a number and arrange payment (plus an additional processing fee) before a fine is issued. Toll roads are clearly signposted and offer opportunities to exit before reaching the tolling point.
Avoiding toll roads may save you a few dollars, but you will pay in substantial extra travel time, fuel cost, and navigation difficulties. If hiring a car, ask the agency for advice on toll roads.
If you encounter a roundabout and are from a country that doesn't have them in great number, like the USA, here's a quick guide:
The rule is: Always give way to vehicles already on the roundabout. That is you may enter the intersection only when there is no risk of causing a collision with a vehicle already on the roundabout.
If you're on a multiple lane road, arrows will be painted in each lane to show which may you proceed in the roundabout. Turn your left indicator on if you intend to go left, indicate left if before your exit point, and indicate right if you intend to turn right or wish to do a U-Turn. Some roundabouts are placed at intersections where more than two roads intersect, i.e: there may be five or more exits. If you find you are approaching one of these, simply indicate left if you wish to take the first exit, for other exits indicate left as you approach your exit.
To leave the roundabout, begin indicating left when you pass the exit before the exit you wish to take. This is so that drivers who are attempting to enter the roundabout know which cars are exiting where, giving them an advanced chance to enter the roundabout safely.
Driving roundabouts gets more straighforward with experience.
Outside of major cities and the coastal routes between some state capitals, Australian highways are mainly two lane undivided sealed asphalt roads. While less than 15% of Australia's population lives in regional and rural areas, about 60% of fatal accidents occur on these roads, because the speeds are freeway-like (speed limits vary between 100km/h and 130km/h) but the conditions are more dangerous than freeways because there is no barrier or division from oncoming traffic.
Some rural highways have regular overtaking lanes but on others you will need to pass slower traffic by pulling into the right hand lane (the one with oncoming traffic). Obviously this should be done when there is no actual oncoming traffic and when you have plenty of visibility, and should be done as quickly as possible. Do not ever overtake by pulling off the road to the left, Australian drivers won't anticipate this even if the shoulder is sealed and it is very dangerous and illegal to drive onto an unsealed shoulder.
Some less major rural roads, and outback roads, are unsealed gravel roads. These are harder to drive on at high speeds and you will have to contend with the odd stone being thrown up. Windscreen damage is not unusual. Typically, rental car companies do not allow their cars to be taken off sealed roads, even if the unsealed road is an official minor road. Many gravel roads in the south are in good condition and experienced drivers tend to drive on them as fast as they would on the sealed roads. When on gravel it is essential to slow down well before a corner or you risk skidding as you turn. Loose or drifting gravel also poses a hazard as it will pull at your tyres. If you feel you are losing control on gravel, slow down, but try to avoid braking sharply. Roads in the northern tropics are often sandy, rocky or corrugated.
Mobile (cell) phone coverage will probably be highly intermittent even on relatively major highways unless you are near a population center. Check the coverage of the network you are using.
If you can budget for it, a mobile phone car kit with an external antenna can increase your range. Again, consult the coverage charts to see where an external antenna may help.
Outside of major centres, do not assume that fuel will be available at night, early morning, or in some cases even on a Sunday. Even on major regional roads roadhouses can close late at night. If you are planning a long drive overnight make sure you know where and when you are going to get fuel.
Maximum speeds vary between states, and are usually signposted.
Where there is no signposted speed in country areas with no street lights, the default limit also varies between states. In Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, the default speed limit is 100km/h. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory the default speed limit is 110km/h, with the Northern Territory having speed limits of up to 130km/h on major highways away from urban areas.
The dividing markings on the road indicate if overtaking is legal. A broken dividing line indicates that you may move to the other side if the road to overtake if it is clear. A solid or double solid dividing line indicates that no overtaking is allowed and you may only move over to the other side to avoid an obstruction. A broken line next to a solid line means that you may move to the other side of the road to overtake if you are driving on the side of the broken line, but not if you're driving on the side of the solid line.
A centre road marking appears to same as a lane dividing marking. It can be sometimes impossible to tell if you are on a two lane one-way road, or a two way road, just by looking at the current section of road, as the line markings are the same. This can be a hazard when divided roads change to single carriageway roads, and you have to remember what type of road you are currently on. If in doubt, just stay left.
Distances can be a problem for the unprepared
Australia is a very big country, and while driving is a fun and interesting way to get around, you have to remember that it is a long long way to get from point A to point B. Taking the capital cities as an example, it is easy to drive from Melbourne to Adelaide in a day (9 hours), and not very much further to Canberra (7.5 hours) but driving from Melbourne to Sydney is a good 10 hours solid driving. If you want to drive to Perth from Melbourne, you must use the Eyre Highway and cross the Nullarbor Plain, which means driving for approximately 3,500 km, including 2,000 km on a virtually dead straight, totally flat road with only a few roadhouses, sometimes hundreds of kilometres apart. You will have to spend at least one night on the road, so book in advance. The general advice is to have a rest every 2 hours 'Stop, Revive, Survive'. You should also be wary of your fuel, distances between fuel supplies can be extreme, even on main roads. Check that you have a map indicating gas stations, as outback communities do not always have fuel supplies.
There is little traffic on those back roads, but what there is will consist of a fair proportion of road trains (semi-trailers towing up to three trailers). They won't brake, as their effective stopping distance is far too great.
As an example, here are the distances from one state capital to another:
Australia is the land of kangaroos, emus, feral camels and horses, and cattle. Normally they just sit or stand by the road, but sometimes wander onto roadways. Kangaroos sometimes leap across roadways directly in front of vehicles. Emus may also run across a road. Off the main highways many roads run adjacent to farms that are unfenced, and stock on the road are common.
Drive carefully when you spot these big animals and be ready to use your brakes. Be careful to avoid braking heavily and suddenly as animals such as kangaroos and emus may be flipped over the lowered bonnet of a heavily braking vehicle and through the windscreen. A damaged vehicle and dead animal is a better outcome than a wounded animal and dead motorists. Swerving to avoid an animal can also lead to fatalities, so if the choice is between hitting the animal or potentially losing control of the vehicle, hit the animal.
A lot of accidents occur at night when some animals are more active and most are less visible. Most car hire firms impose a curfew on driving after sunset in Western Australia and the Northern Territory for good reason. Try and be at your destination before nightfall in remote parts of these regions. If forced to travel at night, keep your speed down. Many animals caught in headlights come to a complete halt, but a short blast on the car horn may help startle them into moving off the road. Briefly switching off your headlights may also encourage them to move on.
Many Australian vehicles in the bush have "bull bars", a rigid steel frame, in front of the radiator. These are to protect passengers and the vehicle in the event of a collision with an animal. They do not discriminate and add to the risks on the road. Some vehicles are also fitted with a "Shu-Roo" which, when attached to the front of a moving vehicle creates a loud whistling sound (not audible to humans) that is supposed to scare kangaroos away.
If you do hit a native animal you are legally required to stop, if it's safe to do so, to check if they had any young in their pouches as these animals are marsupials and some species are endangered. Groups who take care of injured and orphaned animals vary by region, so check local listings before you travel.
If you are driving in the outback, be prepared for anything. There is little traffic, so it is unlikely that anyone will be able to stop and help you should you break down. There are few towns/gas stations etc, so motorists need to make sure that they carry adequate and surplus amounts of food, water and fuel. The interior of Australia is a true desert, so if your vehicle has no air-conditioning, you could suffer day time temperatures of 45° Celsius (110° Fahrenheit). Night time temperatures can drop to freezing.
Depending upon the estimated time of travel and the remoteness of the roads, it is wise to take at least 10 liters of drinking water per person per day of travel, and an additional 3-5 days of extra drinking water per person, in case of breakdown. Shade material and very thick warm blankets are also important survival tools.
Do not expect your mobile phone to work if you are in the outback. While efforts have been made to 'cover' the populated areas, large areas of the country do not have service. If you really go to the back of beyond it is a good idea to buy or rent a two-way HF radio (the Royal Flying Doctor Service web page lists outlets they can be hired from) or a satellite phone.
Many outback unsealed roads require a true four-wheel-drive vehicle for safe passage. One that is especially prepared for the trip with suitable equipment depending on the length, isolation, and roughness of the track. Advanced planning is required for such trips, you cannot just hire a passenger sedan and go! An SUV or soft road vehicle is not always suitable for roads marked as requiring a four wheel drive. If in doubt, check with the local authorities before starting out.
Temperatures can be extremely hot during the day, and can drop drastically once night falls. Always go to the local police station when you are going off the sealed (paved) highway, and tell them where you are going and how long you expect to take. This will help them to look for you if you are stranded. Never ever leave your car when it breaks down in the middle of nowhere. In case of a long wait it gives you shelter and it is a lot easier to spot than a person walking in the bush. Also, a person uses about four times as much water when walking, and Australia is a dry country.
Beware of potholes and corrugations on gravel roads. Potholes are not always visible on sandy roads. The road surface might seem quite even, but hidden potholes hit with sufficient speed can overturn a car. Corrugations are wavelike formations that form on a road surface when enough cars have been driven over it. At low speeds the car will be shaken to a degree that's almost unbearable. At higher speeds there is a risk of losing control over the steering wheel. In most cases a speed of 50-60 km/h is a happy medium; not too slow and not too fast. Do not try to steer around lizards, etc, the car is likely to become unsteerable with a high chance of crashing.
Dust can also be a problem on unpaved roads, and heavy vehicles travelling at high speed often leave a trail of dust behind them, severely impairing visibility in vehicles behind them. As a precaution, do not tailgate. The significantly reduced visibility in dust storms caused by vehicles in front can have deadly consequences.
Pay particular attention to the weather forecasts in outback areas and be prepared to stay put for a while if the weather sets in. Outback roads can be closed with little notice in the wet, isolating communities, at any time of year.
Some two-way paved roads have only one lane paved, right down the middle. When approaching another car both of you are expected to move left off the bitumen onto the dirt at the side of the road, pass, and then move back onto the black. Be wary immediately after passing, as the other car will have stirred up a huge dust cloud which will lower visibility for several seconds.
Road trains are a special hazard on Australian roads. These leviathans can reach lengths of up to 55 metres, with up to four trailers, so treat them with care and respect.
Oncoming road trains should be given all the space they need. On asphalt roads you should slow down and drive partly on the road shoulder if possible.
A road train coming up behind you should often be allowed to pass as well, since some drivers don't obey the posted speed limits. When they overtake you at high speeds, they would often create a "vortex" which sucks you towards them. Therefore, be alert and stay in control of the vehicle at all times. In many cases overtaking a road train is not a good idea. If you have to do it, be sure to choose a nice long stretch of straight road where you can make sure that there's no oncoming traffic for about 2 km. On gravel roads there's only one piece of advice: don't.
Sometimes a large truck will indicate right once or twice if the road ahead is clear, allowing you to overtake. Treat this signal with caution as sometimes there is not enough space between you and the next oncoming car. Use your common sense. If you are equipped with a CB radio you may be able to talk to the truckie and confirm the condition of the road ahead for safe overtaking.
Once you are outside the metropolitan areas traffic tends to thin out and driving becomes relatively boring. The long straight stretches, the slowly changing scenery on many through routes and fine weather can be a recipe for drowsiness. Make sure you stop every couple of hours and, if possible, change drivers. On some routes local service clubs provide coffee and there are bill boards with road safety advice. These are there for a reason. People die on those routes from drivers falling asleep.
When you arrive in Australia allow for "jet lag". Do not leave your car heater or air-conditioner switched to "recycle" as this can make you drowsy and watch for other signs of fatigue (blurred vision, yawning). On summer evenings you can usually leave the windows open, for the fresh air and smell of the bush.
In the north of Australia, the period from November (sometimes even October) to March is considered the Wet Season. Many remote communities (and even some major towns on the Queensland coast) are completely isolated during the Wet, unless they have a landing strip for light aircraft. Rivers that are dry at other times of the year can overflow their banks due to extremely high rainfall. Sometimes bridges are washed out, or dirt roads are turned into muddy quagmires. Water levels can rise quickly from nothing to flooding. Notably, the Bruce Highway, which is the main road from Brisbane up through the Queensland coast to Cairns is notorious for being cut for days at a time in many areas, mostly near Innisfail and Tully, which are both just south of Cairns.
Travellers intending to drive around the North should contact local authorities beforehand, as they will know the most about local conditions. They will also be the poor sods called out to rescue you if you get stuck, so be polite! In Queensland, it is possible to go from Cairns to Cooktown via Mareeba or Mossman using an inland route, which is suitable for regular cars. if you intend to take the coastal route (starting just north of Cape Tribulation), you can't do it whenever it is raining, unless you have a serious 4WD, preferably equipped with a snorkel.
If travelling around the North on unsealed (unpaved) roads, a powerful four-wheel drive vehicle is a must. Being bogged in the middle of the outback can be fatal, although those who follow the rule of informing local police where they are going will probably be okay. Stay with the vehicle, unless it's rapidly sinking underwater.