Driving in Australia
This article is a travel topic
Driving in Australia is an experience to be savoured. The wide-open spaces and magnificent natural scenery is well worth taking the time to visit and experience by car. Indeed many lesser known, but still unique and worthwhile attractions can only be reached by car. This guide aims to fully prepare drivers for an Australian driving experience.
Speed and distance in Australia are measured in kilometres and kilometres per hour. There are approximately 1.6 kilometres in one mile.
Australia is a very big country, and while driving is a fun and interesting way to get around, you have to remember that in most cases it is a long long way to get from point A to point B. For example, driving from Melbourne to Sydney is at least 10 hours solid driving. If you want to drive to Perth from Melbourne, you must cross the Nullarbor Plain, which means driving for approximately 3,500 km, including almost 2,000 km through a virtually empty, uninhabited landscape with only a few roadhouses, sometimes hundreds of kilometres apart. To do it safely (i.e. with plenty of rest) may take up to a week.
As an example, here are the distances from one state capital to another:
As in the United Kingdom and Japan, Australians drive on the left-hand side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle.
Road conditions - travelling in rural and remote areas
Most Australians live on or near the eastern and south-east coasts, where the country is fertile and well watered. Roads within and between the cities and towns in these areas are sealed and generally well maintained, as are the main highways that join the state and territory capital cities. There are usually plenty of well marked rest areas on major highways, though these are usually very basic and do not always have toilet facilities. 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.
Outside of major cities and the coastal routes between some state capitals, Australian highways are mainly two-lane undivided sealed (concrete, bitumen or 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 rarely a barrier or division from oncoming traffic.
Many rural two lane highways feature an occasional third lane for safe overtaking. A yellow diamond sign will indicate with black arrows which direction has priority for overtaking in the middle lane. The single opposing lane may also use the middle lane for overtaking, as long as both oncoming lanes are clear and the centre line closest to the opposing lane is broken.
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.
When travelling on unsealed (gravel) roads 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 your tyres may lose traction as the gravel rolls or shifts under the tyres. If you feel you are losing control on gravel, slow down and try to avoid braking or turning sharply. The posted speed limit is not a goal to achieve on gravel roads - it is most important to drive to the conditions.
Many rural and remote highways have long straight stretches with little traffic and few distractions. This 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 free coffee: take advantage of it. Many people die on these routes from drivers falling asleep at the wheel.
Animals - watch out!
In rural and remote areas, it is common to see dead animals on the side of the road. Australia's abundant wildlife can make driving hazardous. Equally hazardous are domestic animals such as cattle, sheep and goats and many properties in remote areas are un-fenced, allowing these animals to wander out onto the highway. The fact is, quickly swerving or braking heavily could cause a much more serious accident, especially on gravel roads. Many Australians avoid driving at sundown and sunrise, as these are the times when animals are most active, particularly in regions where you will encounter water sources like rivers and reservoirs, or the plains surrounding mountain ranges. You really don't want your first sighting of a kangaroo to be of one smashing against your windscreen, writing your vehicle off in the process.
It is important to note that many car rental firms impose a curfew on driving after sunset in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Often a collision with an animal has a higher excess (deductible) than other collisions. Away from cities and main highways try to be at your destination before nightfall. If forced to travel at night, keep your speed down.
If you come across multiple tyre marks on the road, this could suggest that animals regularly use this part of the road as a crossing, so just be a little more aware, and also, using the high beam head lights at night will make it harder for an animal to find an appropriate escape route, so practice flicking them off for animals as well as for on coming traffic.
If you do see animals crossing the road, slow right down, as more may be following, or they may turn back and cross again.
Remote areas - be prepared
It is important to note that even on major highways, in remote areas (known as the "Outback") motorists may travel for hundreds of kilometres between towns or road-houses without opportunities to refuel, get water, refreshments, or use toilets. In these areas it is strongly advisable not to let your fuel gauge drop below half-full before filling up again, as the next petrol (gas) station may have run out of your type of fuel and you may be stranded. Outback communities do not always have fuel supplies or they may be limited. LPG (liquid petroleum gas) may be un-available in some areas and in remote areas it is very unlikely to be found.
Off the major inter-city highways, road conditions can be difficult in remote areas. Many roads are unsealed (gravel or sandy) and often poorly maintained. Some may only be suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles and some (including major sealed highways) may not be passable at all in certain seasons or weather conditions. Respect road closures, even if the road or track appears traffic-able. Large fines are imposed on vehicles that travel on closed roads. Aside from fines, the road may have been closed due to being impassable much further down the road. If you proceed you may have to turn back or may become stranded at a remote location. Roads are often closed to prevent them becoming seriously damaged by vehicles transiting them when the surface is too soft or slippery after rain. Do not cause damage to a road by continuing your journey and transiting a road or track when it is has been closed, especially if your vehicles wheels are leaving furrows or ruts. No one will be impressed that you made it through indeed they may express anger.
Motorists need to be self-sufficient and prepared for emergencies when travelling off the main highways in remote areas. It is advisable to carry extra water, spare fuel, a tow-rope, blankets, shade material, matches or a lighter and two spare tyres. Do not have all of your water in one container at any time.
Ask locals about road conditions on the route you wish to take and, if relevant, whether they think your car will make it. If you do intend to venture off sealed (paved) highways, it is wise to inform a local police station of where you are going and how long you expect to take. Make sure that you phone them to tell them when you have arrived at your destination. If you do not call them back, they will assume you are stranded or have somehow gone missing and will send out a search team to assist you. 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 a vehicle from the sky than a person walking in the bush.
Be aware that outside of major towns, mobile (cell) phone coverage will almost certainly be non-existent. A satellite phone may be a worthwhile and possibly life-saving investment in the most remote, lightly trafficked areas.
Slow down when approaching cattle grids as these may be bent, broken or deeply potholed on the approaches. Severe tyre damage or a broken spring can result from speeding over these grids. Leave gates shut or open as you have found them.
Do not enter creek or gully crossings without first checking for depth, dips and holes and finding the shallowest path. Water crossings in northern Australia (Far North Qld, Kimberley, Top End) are often inhabited by crocodiles so it is not advisable to walk these rivers. Vehicles are washed away more easily than most people realise.
Permits may be required to travel through Aboriginal communities in certain remote locations, though these permits can usually be obtained for free. Many of these communities prohibit the importation of alcohol.
Road trains are a special hazard on Australian roads. These leviathans can reach lengths of up to 55 m, with up to four trailers. You don't need to be afraid of them, but you certainly need to treat them with care and respect and give them plenty of room to maneuvre.
Oncoming road trains should be given all the space they need. This is in your interest as well, as road trains can create huge gusts in their wake and the rear trailers can occasionally sway over the centre line. On sealed roads, you should slow down and drive as far left on the sealed surface as you can.
A road train overtaking you at high speeds can create a vortex which sucks you towards them. Therefore, be alert and stay in control of the vehicle at all times with both hands on the steering wheel. Be extremely cautious when attempting to overtake a road train, especially when driving a vehicle with a relatively low-powered engine. If you have to do it, be sure to choose a very long stretch of straight road of about two kilometres, so that you can be certain there's no oncoming traffic. Overtake as fast as you safely can. The length of a road train means that it is next to impossible to slip behind and back into your lane if you suddenly realise you're not going to make it. On gravel roads there's only one piece of advice: don't do it at all.
When behind a truck on a long stretch of road, many truck drivers will indicate to you that there is no traffic ahead and therefore safe to overtake by flicking the right indicator light on once or twice. 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.
Most Australian cars have an automatic transmission, although manual (stick-shift) is still common. When hiring a car, it will almost certainly have an automatic transmission. Manual transmissions are generally only offered as an option for the cheapest (light car) models. The gear stick in a manual transmission is operated by the left hand, which may be difficult to adjust to if you are from a country that drives on the right. The arrangement of the pedals is standard worldwide. As the steering wheel in Australian vehicles is on the right, in most cars, the indicator (turn-signal) stalk will be on the right side of the steering wheel and the windscreen wiper stalk on the left side of the steering wheel. Again, if you are from a country that drives on the right, it is inevitable that in the first few days at least, there will be times when you will accidentally switch on the windscreen wipers when making a turn.
Some mountain and tableland areas of NSW and Victoria are noted for having very frosty nights that may cause diesel to solidify in vehicles causing the engine to stop or run abnormally. Usually vehicles will run normally without intervention, when the morning warms, at about 9AM.
Turakina publish driver guides ("turaguides") for overseas visitors intending to drive in Australia.
Buying a car
Buy or rent?
A very rough rule of thumb can be:
Tips for buying
Most of the tips for buying a car in Australia are the same as the precautions you would take anywhere. However, in Australia
Legal issues and safety
Driving is regulated by state government authorities, but there is a consistent set of road rules across Australia. 
Drivers in Australia require a valid driving licence. Foreign licences 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 which is issued in your home country before arrival in Australia is required.
Australian licenses are issued by the respective state and territory governments. Visitors with licenses from Austria, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guernsey, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, Japan, Jersey, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States may convert their foreign licenses to an Australian one after paying an administrative fee. All other foreign license holders are required to sit for a theory and practical test before they can get an Australian license.
Throughout Australia, use of seat belts is compulsory for drivers and 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. Penalties apply to the driver of the vehicle, and include monetary fines in the hundreds of dollars, as well as demerit points, which may lead to a license suspension.
Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
The blood alcohol limit for fully licensed drivers is 0.05% throughout Australia. Learner and provisional drivers are not permitted to have any alcohol in their system whilst driving.
Police conduct random breath tests along both 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.
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. The GSM standard emergency number 112 also works from any mobile phone. 112 will use any available network and will work even with an overseas GSM phone without roaming enabled. 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 have been injured or killed, or where there is serious property damage, is legally required to stop and render assistance. The penalties for leaving an accident scene can be severe (up to 10 years imprisonment), even if you are not at fault. You must contact appropriate emergency authorities, but you are not required to give first aid if you have not had 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.
Law enforcement - speeding and red light running
Speed cameras are used in all states and territories of Australia, with some states using hidden cameras, others preferring highly visible ones. The strictest place for speed limit enforcement is Victoria, with mobile speed cameras hidden in unmarked cars, as well as hidden fixed cameras behind highway signage. The official tolerance in Victoria is just three kilometres per hour in excess of the speed limit. Police speed traps, and mobile patrols also regularly pull over cars for exceeding the speed limit. In other states, exceeding the speed limit by 10km/h or so will usually result in you being sent a fine notice 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. For these reasons you will find that speeding in Australia is uncommon. Red light and combined red light/speed cameras also operate at many urban intersections and a similar fine will result.
Fine notices are invariably sent to overseas addresses. Rental car companies often charge an administration fee if fines are incurred, and will pass your name on to the debt collection authorities. Your fine won't generally be pursued outside Australia, but you should consider the consequences if you wish to drive in Australia in the future.
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. If you are a member of the local motoring group in your home country, you might be entitled to free reciprocal assistance, such as maps, from the various motoring groups in Australia. Check with your local motoring group before you leave.
A different level of coverage with a higher fee is usually required to ensure useful assistance in remote areas.
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 to or from work, or on freeways on long weekends (bank holiday weekends) when everyone is trying to get out of town.
A hazard unique to Melbourne's CBD and the inner suburbs are trams (streetcars). Melbourne is known for its extensive tram network. There are some tram-related rules which may not be immediately obvious.
Normally cars can drive in the same lane as the tram tracks, and there will be a broken yellow lane marker left of the "tram lane". The broken 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 situation, there may be a sign overhead that specifies times when cars are not permitted to drive in that lane. If there is no sign, then cars are not permitted on the tracks at any time.
Tram passengers have right of way when crossing the road to or from a tram. You must stop behind the tram when the doors of the tram are open, unless the tram is stopped at a cordoned off stop with barriers.
Related to the tramways 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, delaying the progress of several trams. To get around this problem, the "hook turn" was invented. This involves turning right from the left lane. Here is how 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.
School zones have a 40km/h limit during school hours and these are clearly signposted; usually with flashing electronic variable speed limit signs. South Australian school zones are 25km/h. In some state, school zones on major highways may be signposted at 60km/h or 80km/h. In New South Wales, school buses feature flashing lights when picking up or dropping off children. This is to warn drivers to slow down, however unlike in the United States, you are not required to come to a complete stop.
It is illegal to turn left on a red traffic signal. In some states, it is illegal to do a U-turn at a traffic signal, unless there is a sign explicitly permitting. In Victoria a U-turn is permitted at any intersection with signals, unless signage specifically prohibits this.
Overtaking is permitted to the right hand side only, unless you are driving on a multi-lane road and the other vehicle can be safely overtaken in a marked lane to the left of that vehicle. If the signposted speed is above 80km/h it is illegal for a car to remain in the right hand lane on a road except whilst overtaking another vehicle. When the overtaking manoeuvre is completed drivers should move back into the left lane as soon as it is safe to do so. Where no such lanes are marked drivers must only overtake on the right hand side of the other vehicle unless the other vehicle is stationary turning to the right or signalling an intention to do so. Whilst overtaking you must not cross over any continuous (unbroken) centre line, continuous double lines or where the double centreline nearest to you is unbroken.
Parking in major cities can be difficult and expensive, especially in the CBD and around tourist areas, such as beaches. Even smaller towns may have parking hassles on popular market days and for events.
Commercial parking lots charge are common in capital cities centres, and operate on an hourly basis on weekdays, and often charging a flat fee on weekends or evenings. These can be very expensive in the CBD area.
Cities often have council operated on-street parking that involves a fee payable. There is either a meter that corresponds to the spot in which you have parked, or a ticket machine to buy a ticket from. 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. Feeding meters (staying longer than the posted time by returning to the meter or ticket machine, and inserting more money or buying another ticket) is illegal and will result in the same fine as not paying the fee.
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.
Areas signposted as clearways, prohibit parking during peak times. Parked cars will be often be towed, adding a $100 recovery charge, and considerable hassle.
Areas marked as no stopping, or bus zones or taxi zones are illegal to stop in, even to pick up and drop off. Areas marked as no standing or no parking zones are those in which you may pick up and drop off, but you can't leave your car.
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 some 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. On some roads, a cash payment can be made at tollbooths on the road, however increasingly there is a trend to electronic collection of tolls via transponders fitted inside vehicles. Some toll roads do not allow for cash payment at all. If you drive on such a road without a transponder, a photo is taken of your vehicle's number plate, and you have a limited time (between 24 and 72 hours, depending upon the road) to phone a number or visit a website and arrange credit card payment (plus an additional processing fee) before a fine is issued. Toll roads are clearly signposted and opportunities to exit are clearly delineated before reaching the first tolling point.
Avoiding toll roads may save you a few dollars, but you may pay in extra travel time, fuel cost, and navigation difficulties, particularly during peak travel times. If hiring a car, ask the agency for advice on toll roads. A single transponder can be used on any toll road in Australia, regardless of which company issued the transponder and which company operates the toll road you wish to travel on. There is no extra charge for travelling on another company's toll road.
If you encounter a roundabout and are from a country that doesn't have many of them, like the United States of America, here's a quick guide:
Give way (yield). Give way to vehicles already on the roundabout: enter the intersection only when there is no risk of collision with a car on the roundabout coming from your right. On most roundabouts, this effectively means that you must give way to cars coming from your right.
Indicate. When two roads cross at a small roundabout, indicate left to go left, right to go right, and do not indicate if going straight. On a larger roundabout with more exits, don't indicate left until you are taking the next exit.
Select your lane. On multiple lane roundabouts arrows will usually be on the road indicating which lane you should choose to go which direction. Otherwise, just take the left lane to go left, right lane to go right, and either lane to go straight. Bicycles may stay in the left lane and go right, but if they choose to do this, they must give way to vehicles in the right lane exiting.
The default open road speed limit varies between states and territories in Australia. This is the speed limit that must be observed in rural areas where there is no posted limit. In most states it is 100 km/h, but in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, it is 110 km/h. In urban areas (where there are street lights), the default limit is 50 km/h, except in the Northern Territory, where it is 60 km/h. Higher speed limits may apply to some streets and roads, but only where a higher speed limit is clearly sign-posted. For example, some major highways in the Northern Territory have posted speed limits of 130 km/h in rural/remote areas and many rural highways in other states have posted speed limits of 110 km/h.
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 fully sealed and suitable for normal 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 four-wheel drive, 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 if one is not properly prepared.