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Driving in New Zealand

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    This article is a travel topic

Driving around New Zealand [1] will allow you to see those parts of this wonderfully scenic country that tourist operators haven't discovered yet.

General introduction

All measurements in New Zealand are metric. It is easy to underestimate the time needed for travel. The local Automobile Association (AA) publishes a travelling time guide that suggests average travelling speeds in the range of 50-70 km/h should be allowed if travel is to be enjoyed. However, if you are travelling below the posted speed limit and holding up other traffic, you should pull over to the left when safe to do so to allow following faster traffic to pass.

You can legally drive for up to 12 months if you have a current driver's licence from your home country. It must be in English or you must have an International Driving Permit (IDP) to accompany it. You must carry a valid driving licence at all times when driving.

The New Zealand Road Code and self-test questions are available on-line from the New Zealand Land Transport Agency. [2], or can be purchased from any AA office.

Fre on-line lessons and resources for people intending to drive rental cars or rental campervans/RV's in New Zealand are available from turaguides in conjuction with your rental firm [3].

Keep left

Drive on the left-hand side of the road.

Unless in a one-way street, it is unlawful to stop (and especially to park) on the right hand side of the road - as well as being especially dangerous for those drivers coming from countries where folks drive on the right!

If you are used to driving on the right, you need to concentrate at all times. Take particular care when pulling out from laybys and driveways or when you are tired. It is very easy to have a lapse of concentration and to revert to habit. Such lapses cause fatal head-on collisions in New Zealand every year. A useful trick is to put a sock over the gear lever or handbrake to remind you.

Most roads lack median barriers, so there is nothing to force the driver to stay on the correct side of the road.

Give way to the right

Generally speaking, driving in New Zealand is relatively stress-free.

As a rule of thumb, most New Zealand driving instructors used to say that if, in a collision, the other car would hit your driver's side door (right hand side of the car), you should give way.

It is important to note that anyone behind a give way sign must give way to any cars on roads without the give way sign. Failure to give way will result in a $150 fine.

Highway network

New Zealand has a network of major arterial roads throughout the country that are called State Highways (abbreviated SH). Most are relatively narrow with a single carriageway in each direction with a good surface cambered to shed water. Only a few roads designated as Motorways are engineered to international highway standards and that term is used to describe a road reserved and designed specifically for motorised vehicles. Stopping on the side of a motorway other than in an emergency is prohibited.

In many respects, New Zealand highways are simply the major roads between significant places and can be used by any traveller, including cyclists, pedestrians and even farm animals.

The state Highway Network is documented at Wikipedia: New Zealand State Highway network

Road signs

New Zealand Road Signs generally follow international conventions. The full range of signs is illustrated in the New Zealand Road Code [4]. There are three types:

Regulatory signs--those that must be obeyed by law--have a red border or background. Red on a road sign indicates there is a road rule that will be broken (and fine) if the sign is disobeyed.

  • STOP signs require a vehicle be stopped at an intersection and not proceed until the way is clear. Stopping is mandatory, no matter what time of day or the traffic conditions.
  • GIVE WAY signs require a vehicle to give way or yield right of way to other vehicles (except those controlled by a stop sign.) Stopping is not mandatory but wise, as these signs are often erected at busy intersections where vision is obstructed.

Warning signs, which should be obeyed for safety reasons, have black borders and symbols with a yellow (permanent) or orange (temporary) background.

Information signs, which give information, normally have white borders and symbols or text with either a blue, green, or brown background. This includes many parking signs, and fines may be imposed by the local council, rather than the police, if parking limits are exceeded. Rectangular blue signs with a white border that read Pxx (where xx is a number) indicate the maximum amount of time that a vehicle may remain parked in that area.

Road markings

White lines are used to mark the roads; solid lines indicate road boundaries, parking spaces, stopping positions and centre lines at intersections. Broken or dotted lines indicate lanes and centre lines. As a general rule, it is permissible to cross a broken white line, while a solid white line indicates some road rule limits when that line should be crossed.

Yellow centre lines are used to indicate when passing or crossing the centre line is not permitted. Broken yellow lines on the side of the road are used to indicate No Stopping areas or parking spaces reserved for special vehicles.

Controlled intersections (traffic lights or signs) have limit lines that vehicles need to stop behind at these intersections. These lines are often set back a few metres from the intersection itself and if you cross the line, say at a right turn, your vehicle may not be detected by the traffic light sensors and you may not get the green light.

Diagonal, often yellow, cross hatchings in an intersection shows that the exit to the intersection often is blocked, and you must not obstruct the intersection by stopping in the (marked) area of the intersection, though this rule applies at every intersection, marked or not.

Large diagonal white lines in the centre of the road indicate a 'flush median'. This may be used only when turning right, never for overtaking.

Bus lanes are often, though not always, painted green. Cars should not be driven in bus lanes unless a sign indicates permission; some bus lanes may be open to cars that are carrying passengers or travelling at certain times of the day or week. You may travel for 50 metres in a bus lane if you have just entered a road or are going to turn left within this distance.

Pedestrian crossings

At pedestrian crossings (zebra crossings), white parallel lines are painted across the road. A white diamond is usually painted on the road before pedestrian crossing, together with warning signs and amber flashing lights or round orange reflectors on black and white striped poles at the crossing.

Drivers must stop for pedestrians waiting at the crossing. This applies to the whole crossing and pedestrians on both sides of the road, even if the white centreline passes through the crossing or there is a painted centre median. Only when there is a raised traffic island may the crossings in either traffic direction be treated separately. Vehicles may proceed once the pedestrian has safely passed by the front of their vehicle.

If the word SCHOOL is painted by the diamond or on the warning sign, the crossing is controlled by a School Patrol with round STOP signs. Traffic must stop and stay stopped if even one school patrol stop sign is displayed on either side of school patrol crossings. Although these crossings are often operated by trained school children, there is generally a responsible adult supervising too. Crossing patrols operate about half an hour before and after school, typically 8:30-9:00 a.m. and 2:00-3:30 p.m.

Traffic signals (traffic lights)

All New Zealand traffic signals are standardised with red on top, amber in the middle, and green at the bottom. Only one colour shows at a time: unlike the UK, there is no red-amber phase indicating the lights will shortly change to green.

The following lights occur: they have the same meaning on vehicles:

  • Flashing Red: stop and stay stopped until the lights stop flashing. Normally encountered only outside fire stations, ambulance stations, airport runways and at railway crossings. One or two lights may be flashing, either together or alternating. Police vehicles can use flashing red and blue lights.
  • Flashing Amber: a road hazard. If encountered at traffic lights, it means the lights are not operating and the give way rules apply. Vehicles in hazardous positions (breakdowns, road constriction and service vehicles) should have flashing amber lights on.
  • Red: stop and stay stopped until the light goes out. Unlike in some other countries, you cannot turn left on the red signal, even though this turn isn't against traffic. However there are a few intersections with a "free turn" to the left. Here, you can turn left provided it is clear. This is shown by an island and/or a "free turn" sign.
  • Red Arrow: stop for the direction of the arrow.
  • Amber: stop unless you cannot safely do so.
  • Amber Arrow- Stop for the direction of the arrow - unless you cannot safely do so.
  • Green: you may proceed IF the way is clear - ie, You still have to give way to other vehicles or pedestrians.
  • Green Arrow: you may proceed in the direction of the arrow IF the way is clear but you may still have to give way to other vehicles or pedestrians.
  • Other symbols such as a bicycle or a letter mean the lights apply to the specific vehicle identified in the symbol.
  • Red and Green Person: used at pedestrian crossings beside the lights. If no pedestrian lights are showing pedestrians may cross the road with the green light.

City driving

In urban areas the speed limit is 50 km/h unless there are signs indicating otherwise.

Auckland is the largest city, and drivers will encounter some traffic congestion at peak times, which remains mild by international standards. Other major cities such as Wellington also have traffic jams around 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on key roads in and out of the city. At off-peak times driving from the city to the airport can take 25 min. In peak times it can take up to an hour, but generally 40 min, to travel the same route. There are areas of extensive road building/improvements through the city and can cause delays where they meet the existing network. Note that particularly in Auckland but anywhere in the country, roads do not often follow a grid pattern and fog can be an early-morning obstacle. Remain alert.

There are generally very few one-way streets in New Zealand, but most of them are located in the cities' central business districts, so beware of them while driving there as they are not always obvious. Be particularly careful in Wellington where not only one-way streets but also bus-only streets exist. Also, be particularly careful of the unusually high kerbs in Wellington, which can cause a driver to scrape the paintwork or undercarriage of the car when normally they would expect only the tires to hit the kerb.

Open road

The speed limit on the main highways and motorways is 100 km/h for cars, but only 90 km/h for buses, trucks and vehicles towing trailers. Some semi-rural roads have 70 km/h or 80 km/h limits, especially approaching and leaving urban areas. The Auckland Harbour Bridge and the Central Motorway Junction in Auckland have an 80km/h limit.

Some roads have a Limited Speed Zone or LSZ. This means the speed limit changes depending on the conditions. In good conditions, with light traffic, the speed limit can be the open road limit of 100 km/h but it drops to 50 km/h if there is a lot of traffic, the weather is poor or there are people on the roadside. A LSZ will often be found in the transition zones between town and country, though most have now been replaced with 70 km/h zones.

Be aware not all road signs follow the international standard and "open-road-signs" are still in use in less used roads. These are white signs with a black stripe across them which denote a 100km/h zone. But like the LSZ drivers are expected to adjust their speed in bad conditions (it is unlikely that you will be fined for travelling at 100km/h even in relatively bad conditions on the "open road" however caution is advised as many of these roads are in comparatively poor condition with potholes, etc making some of them dangerous even at the best of times).

Be careful when turning into side roads while in rural areas. Stopping in the middle of the road while waiting to turn often results in a rear collision. Drivers typically wait to the left of the road instead of the middle.

Many rural highways are windy, fast, have one lane on each side of the road, and have tight corners. While the speed limit is freeway-like (100km/h), the conditions are more dangerous than freeways as there is no barrier separating you from oncoming traffic. Oblong black and white arrow signs with a number (eg. "65") approximately indicate the tightness of an upcoming turn; the number indicates an appropriate speed to travel at through the corner. It is generally accepted that an experienced driver in good conditions when not towing or driving a heavy vehicle will be able to take the bend at 20 - 30km/h more than the marked speed. However for signs reading "35km/h" the speed advice should be taken literally as all 35km/h turns are exceedingly difficult turns around which it is hard to remain in your lane at above this speed. Also in bad weather it is often necessary to follow precisely the advice of all these signs.

Speed limits and enforcement

In general a 10km/h allowance is made for inaccurate speedometers, so many drivers travel at 100-104km/h on the open road. Officially though, the Police have a no-tolerance policy and can issue tickets for any speed over the limit. Police have been known to fine for only going 5km/h over the speed limit. Further, police occasionally issue fines (infringement notices) for driving at or below the sign-posted speed limits, where a vehicle's speed is excessive for the driving conditions (e.g. in crowded streets in town centres or on icy roads).

Travelling more than 40 km/h over any speed limit is considered dangerous driving and will result in arrest, suspension of driver's licence and possible impounding of the vehicle if caught by police. Failing to stop for Police when directed (e.g. Flashing red and blue lights/siren) may also result in an arrest, as New Zealand Police will pursue a fleeing vehicle unless doing so would endanger other road users.

The police operate a dedicated Highway Patrol who have the responsibility of enforcing traffic laws and assist at accidents. These vehicles are marked in yellow, blue and white (rather than the orange, blue and white of other police vehicles). Unmarked (or mufti) patrol vehicles are also used. However, all Police officers are expected to stop offending motorists if traffic offending is observed. However, it is rare for (non-Highway Patrol) Police officers to concentrate on offences other than speeding. Police officers are required to ensure a steady flow of traffic by ensuring overly slow drivers pull over and let traffic past; however, this behaviour is rarely observed.

Speed cameras operate from the back of unmarked cars, vans (as of August 2005, mainly white, red or green Mistubishi vans) or from camera boxes in fixed positions. Police also use handheld laser speed guns and may operate hidden speed cameras. An innocent looking parked van or car or that cream or silver box on a pole at the side of the road may or may not contain a camera, best to assume that it does. The official policy is to target those areas with disproportionately high accident statistics.

Take extra care at observing speed limits as you pass through small towns. There are often speed cameras just past where the speed limit drops to 50km/h, such as the fixed speed cameras entering Bulls from the south as with Palmerston North.

Also be sure to obey temporary speed restrictions put in place for road works and special events, even when there is no evidence of work actually in progress. When resealing has taken place, the limit is often left in place for a couple of weeks until loose stones have disappeared or been swept. Being caught driving at more than 80km/h in a temporary 30km/h zone will lead to automatic loss of driving licence plus a heavy fine. Do not be surprised if long lengths of highway have 30km/h restrictions despite there not being any sign of road works or workmen; this is notoriously commonplace to drivers' frustration.

Drinking and driving

New Zealand Police strictly enforce alcohol limits for drivers (0.08 for drivers over 20, 0.0 for drivers under 20). Police often set up checkpoints, sometimes around a whole city centre, and even on motorways. Any and every traffic stop is also an opportunity for testing for drink-driving. Police use breath alcohol test devices to detect drivers who have been drinking. Drivers who fail these roadside screening tests will be asked to undertake a evidential breath or blood alcohol test. Refusal will result in arrest.

Seatbelts

Wearing seatbelts in cars and vans is compulsory. There are very limited exceptions for medical reasons (with a medical certificate), taxi drivers and some antique cars. All passengers above the age of 16 years old are responsible for wearing their own seatbelts. The driver is responsible for ensuring children, especially under 8's, are restrained in approved child restraints, if they are too small of an ordinary seat belt. If you are in a car, even a taxi, buckle up. You could be fined $150 if you are not wearing your seatbelt, even as a passenger.

Overtaking

Most of New Zealand's roads are single carriageways with only one lane in each direction, few median barriers, and few passing (or overtaking) lanes. When passing lanes do exist they are often fairly short. Passing lanes may sometimes be legally used by vehicles overtaking in the opposite direction too (but only when the lane is clear- traffic on the same side of the centre line as the passing lane has right of way). This depends on whether the centreline markings have double yellow lines (no crossing) or a single yellow line with a white broken line (crossing permitted from the white line side only), so keep to the left whilst driving in a passing lane except when overtaking.

Except at intersections, where vehicles are turning right, overtaking vehicles must pass on the right. People often overtake by driving on the opposite side of the road. If you choose to overtake then make sure you spend as little time as possible on the opposite side of the road and only overtake when you can maintain at least 100 metres visibility throughout the whole manoeuvre. However, you must take care not to exceed the speed limit at all times, as speeding up to minimise the time spent on the wrong side of the road, will still be viewed by Police officers as dangerous.

Where overtaking is not allowed, the road is marked with a solid yellow line adjacent and to the left of the white dotted centreline. It is illegal to overtake in these zones unless you can do so without crossing the centreline. Never cross a yellow no overtaking line to overtake as these are often the only indication of a hidden dip in the road ahead. These hidden dips could be hiding oncoming traffic that would be impossible to avoid.

On multi-lane roads (including overtaking lanes), each lane is considered a separate road-way and passing on the left can occur provided you stay within the marked lanes. Slower vehicles are expected to travel in the left lane(s) when multiple lanes travel in the same direction, but may not, for example in heavy traffic. Also a driver is legally obligated, where possible to drive in the left hand lane, however this is rarely if ever enforced.

On two lane roads, slower vehicles are legally obliged to allow faster following traffic to pass when it queues behind them, whenever there is an opportunity to do so. Vehicles will often pull to the left edge of the road and indicate a left signal briefly. However, this behaviour is becoming less widespread, and Police officers will never enforce this obligation.

Overtaking is a notable feature of intercity travel in New Zealand due to the lack of multi-lane motorways. Expect to be constantly overtaking slow, heavily laden trucks and other slower vehicles.

School buses

The speed limit passing a school bus that has stopped for passengers is 20km/h from either direction. This means you must slow to 20km/h even if the school bus is on the opposite side of the road. Some school buses have a yellow and black sign saying "SCHOOL" but no other warning signs or marking different from any other bus on the road; school buses lack distinctive colouring and are never painted yellow. There are a lot of school buses on rural roads between 7AM and 9AM and 3PM and 5PM on any school day so it pays to take care.

Hazards

In the North Island the main hazards are:

  • Logging trucks - in the centre of the island there are major forests with large numbers of trucks transporting logs to the pulp mills or to the ports of Tauranga and Wellington.
  • Snow and ice - this is a winter hazard on State Highway 1 on the Desert Road ie the section between Waiouru and Turangi. As this section of the road passes the main volcanic peaks and is on the main north-south road it is well travelled. Travellers should check the status of the road in winter. The other main route which is subject to this hazard is the Napier-Taupo road. Grit is often spread on icy roads, but salt is never used.
  • Railway crossings - there are still a number of level crossings on the main roads. Many of these crossings do NOT have barrier arms, but only warning lights and bells. Some crossings ONLY have a "Give Way" sign. Railway crossings are usually well sign-posted but there are a number of fatal crashes on these each year.
  • Slips - after heavy rain many roads become subject to slips (small avalanches) and it is as well to drive more carefully on winding roads through valleys or cuttings.
  • State Highway 2, between the start at the bottom of the Bombay Hills and the Thames turnoff is a stretch of road with many fatal head-on traffic crashes. This is a section of winding 2 lane road with a few short passing places and heavy traffic flows (especially over holidays and weekends during summer). There are plans to bypass the worst section by 2010.
  • The Centenial Highway, which is part of State Highway 1, between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay has gained a reputation as a fatal head-on traffic crash blackspot. This is a 10 km section of narrow 2 lane road with no passing places, heavy traffic flows and no room for driver error. Watch your speed, following distance, lane position and above all be patient. Crashes in this area will often close the road for several hours. Currently Transit New Zealand are installing a median barrier along this highway to eliminate head-on collisions. For a more scenic trip take the Paekakariki Hill Road, which gives spectacular views of the Kapiti Coast and Tasman Sea.
  • Ngauranga Gorge, State Highway One into Wellington, from when the motorway ends at Johnsonville, until joining with State Highway Two and the motorway into Wellington. The gradient is one in twelve, nose-to-tail crashes are very common in the city bound (downhill) lanes, and speed is restricted to 80kph. Use the brakes, watch following distance, and be alert.

The removal of the Newlands Traffic Lights and installation of an interchange has significantly reduced the hazards, but care is still required.

  • Drainage ditches - some roads, especially in the Waikato, have deep water-carrying ditches on one or both sides of the road. These are often obscured by long grass and are easy to fall into if straying leaving the tarseal.
  • Foreign drivers - Foreign drivers who are not acclimatized to New Zealand driving conditions or rules can behave unpredictably, a particular hazard is people forgetting that NZ drives on the left and wandering over the centreline.
  • The "Rimutaka Ranges", these are a mountain range part of which block the path into Wellington. Because of this there are only two ways in, around the coast which is a pleasant drive into Wellington or across the Rimutaka Ranges in a very tight and hard piece of mountain road. This road links Featherston and the Hutt Valley There are frequent corners and despite being open road it is impossible even for the most experienced driver to take the road at 100km/h with the tightness of the turns, the steep slope, the narrow road and cliffs that run along one side of the road.

In the South Island the main hazards are:

  • Snow and ice - some roads in the South Island, particularly the mountain passes, are occasionally closed by snow and ice, or passable with the use of snow chains in winter. The main ski fields are in the South Island and travellers to these should ensure they have chains for their vehicles. Grit is spread rather than salt to provide grip on icy roads.
  • Dual use bridges - on some roads, particularly on State Highway 6 on the West Coast, there are combined road and rail bridges. Make sure there are no trains on or approaching these before you commit your vehicle to a crossing.
  • The Homer Tunnel - On the road to Milford Sound. This is a one lane tunnel that operates for 20 minutes in each direction each hour. Also beware of the tourist buses on this road.

Other Hazards:

  • Stock on roads - Flocks of sheep are often driven along roads if their journey is only a few km. Slow right down to a crawl and enjoy the experience. Also, on many dairy farms, cattle have to cross a road to get to and from their milking shed twice a day.
  • Stock trucks - Being an agricultural country, large numbers of animals are transported around the country by large truck towing equally large trailers. Although these trucks have effluent tanks to capture animal droppings, there is still some spillage or spray drift occasionally. Avoid following these vehicles too closely and keep the windscreen washer bottle full so that any "spray" can be washed off.
  • One-lane bridges - Typically found on lesser travelled highways, but occasionally on more busy routes. They are marked so that traffic in one direction has right-of-way (blue informational sign) and the other direction must give way (red and white compulsory sign). Some longer bridges have a passing bay in the middle.
  • Road Works - New Zealand roads are mostly "tar and gravel" pavements. These need to be regularly resealed, often a few kilometres at a time. The normal speed limit through road works is 30km/h, especially if there is loose gravel. Higher speeds may damage new pavements and throw up stones. Watch out for temporary signs warning of New Seal. Motorcyclists should take extra care, as irregular and cursory sweeping of the newly-laid surfaces can result in extremely dangerous corners.
  • Loose gravel - On rural highways often a layer of loose gravel or road grit left over from winter on the edges of the road. A bad line through a corner can easily result in a major crash if a wheel enters the gravel or grit at the wrong time.
  • Summer Rainstorms - Many parts of New Zealand have long periods without rain during the summer, during which tyre rubber and engine oil accumulate on the road surface. This can lead to the road surface becoming surprisingly slippery when it does rain. Also be aware that some rainstorms - especially hailstorms - are caused by a cold front. The sudden drop in air temperature on a previously warm summers day with an closed car can - almost instantly - fog the windscreen - too fast for even air-conditioning to clear it. If you notice your windscreen starting to fog when encountering summer rain, start the demister immediately, or slow down and pull off the road as soon as you can.
  • Unsealed roads - there are a good number of unsealed roads (otherwise known as gravel roads, or "metal" roads) in New Zealand. They are usually marked on maps although seal is gradually being extended so older maps may not be up to date. If you do drive on them, don't drive too fast - 60km/h is about the maximum speed for safe driving on such roads. Slow down when passing vehicles or people if there there are loose stones on the road as tyres can send these hurtling at high speeds.

See also

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