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Road rules every driver should know before they visit New Zealand

Before you get behind the wheel, it’s important that you learn some of the differences between driving in New Zealand and overseas.
By · October 26, 2023
Road rules every driver should know before they visit New Zealand

New Zealand is the ideal country for a road trip. Aotearoa, or “the land of the long white cloud” is full of idyllic destinations, rugged scenery, hidden beaches and nature at every turn. You'll need a private vehicle to get to most of these places. But before you get behind the wheel, it’s important that you learn some of the differences between driving in New Zealand and overseas.

New Zealand is considered a safe country, but road accidents are higher than in most other OECD countries. In fact, New Zealand ranks 29th out of 33 OECD countries for road deaths, with a death rate of 7.9 people per 100,000.

Why does New Zealand have high road injury rates?

In most road accidents, human error is to blame. Around 600 road deaths or injuries a year involve foreign drivers with most of these crashes finding the visitors at fault. Some things that contribute to high crash rates include:

  • Failure to adjust to local conditions

  • Drivers being unfamiliar with road design

  • Drivers being unfamiliar with road signage

  • Speeding

  • Crossing the centre line

  • Driving on the wrong side of the road

  • Pulling out of rest areas onto the wrong side of the road

How to drive to the conditions on New Zealand roads

One of the best ways to stay safe on New Zealand roads is to drive to the local conditions. The weather can change quickly and often in some parts of New Zealand. Fog, rain, snow, icy roads and sudden rain can all require you to adjust your driving speed. Slowing down when the weather turns for the worse will allow you more reaction time in an unexpected situation.

Take caution if the road is wet, slippery, or icy. Avoid sudden acceleration, braking, or sharp turns that could lead you to lose control. Drive using gentle, smooth manoeuvres, especially when you are out in the country.

In some regions of New Zealand, snow and ice can be a significant concern during the winter months. When driving in these conditions, it's important to have snow chains available and know how to install them. Visibility can be significantly reduced in poor weather conditions, so using headlights, even during daylight hours, helps other drivers see your vehicle. In New Zealand, it's a legal requirement to use headlights in certain situations, like in fog.

How to drive on unfamiliar roads in New Zealand

While you can’t familiarise yourself with the roads before you get here, learning about what types of roads are common in New Zealand can help you stay safe. If you’re familiar with driving on motorways or highways overseas, you shouldn’t have any problems with New Zealand’s motorway system. However, dangerous road accidents usually occur once drivers enter the country.

Many of New Zealand’s state highways have a single lane on each side, and it’s not uncommon to pass large trucks and tankers coming in the opposite direction. Reducing your speed around corners, keeping to the left and staying focused on the road ahead are all important when driving on country roads.

New Zealand also has gravel roads in some areas. Gravel roads can be challenging, as many feature loose gravel, potholes, and windy turns. To stay safe, drive cautiously and adjust your travelling speed. Driving below the 50kmph speed limit on a gravel road is not unusual. If you are following another vehicle, give the car in front of you plenty of space. Gravel roads kick up a lot of dust and can obstruct your vision. There’s also the added risk of stones hitting your windscreen if you’re following another vehicle too closely.

How to familiarise yourself with road signage in New Zealand

Before you drive in New Zealand, you should familiarise yourself with some of our road signage.

Traffic Signs

Road speed signs are depicted by a red circle with a white interior and the speed limit (in km’s) in black. The road speed in New Zealand is 50km/h in residential areas and 80-100 km/h on country roads. It’s important drivers pay attention to changing road speeds.

Stop signs are an octagonal red sign with white lettering. The word ‘STOP’ is also painted on most areas' roads. Stop signs require the driver to come to a complete stop before giving way to all other traffic.

Give Way signs are triangular with a red border and white interior. Vehicles at a Give Way must yield the right of way to other vehicles but don’t legally need to come to a complete stop.

One-way bridge signs are diamond-shaped and show two narrow black lines. They are also accompanied by a secondary sign that shows which vehicle has the right of way.

Hazard Signs

Slippery surface signs are yellow and depict a black vehicle and two squiggly lines on the road. These can be used to indicate that the road is slippery, or slick or just give drivers a warning that cars can skid more quickly in these areas.

Gravel road signs are yellow and depict one vehicle causing small rocks to hit the windscreen of an oncoming vehicle.

Driving to the speed limit in New Zealand

New Zealand has lower speed limits than some drivers might be used to, especially on the open road. This is because many of our country roads are narrow and have oncoming traffic. That’s why driving to the speed limit is important and adjusting your speed as you approach turns and intersections.

  • The speed limit on highways and motorways is a maximum of 100km/h for light vehicles.

  • The speed limit in most towns and cities is a maximum of 50km/h for light vehicles.

  • The speed limit on some country roads is 80 km/h.

  • The speed limit around some schools is 40km/h.

These speed limits are approximate. You must pay attention to speed limits while you drive, as the legal speed will change depending on where you are driving.

Driving on the left in New Zealand

In New Zealand, vehicles drive on the left-hand side. Many accidents happen when drivers cross the centre line, pull out of a rest area on the wrong side of the road or treat our roads like dual-carriageways. Failing to drive on the correct side of the road, particularly when navigating corners, can lead to dangerous situations, including head-on collisions or crossing into oncoming traffic.

Many foreigners may unintentionally cross the centre line when approaching corners, and the disorientation of being on the "wrong" side of the road can lead to lapses in judgment. If you’re not used to driving on the left, make sure there’s someone in the car with you while you drive. You can also practice driving in town before driving on the open road.

New Zealand's roads often feature sharp bends and twists, making it tempting for some drivers to cut corners or drive in the centre of the lane to save time. However, this behaviour is extremely dangerous. If something unexpected happens, a driver is more likely to cross into oncoming traffic rather than stick to the left. This won’t happen if you are staying in your designated lane.

Road rules you should know before driving in New Zealand

  • The maximum speed limit is displayed on signs in New Zealand. If the speed limit is 100km/h that is the fastest you can go.

  • Drivers and passengers must wear seatbelts or child restraints at all times.

  • It is illegal to use a handheld cellphone while you are driving in New Zealand.

  • It is illegal to pass another car when there is a solid yellow line marking the middle of the road. The yellow line indicates that it is too dangerous to pass.

  • You cannot overtake a vehicle in a residential or urban area by leaving your lane and driving on the opposite side of the road.

  • All distances and speeds in New Zealand are in kilometres.

  • You must indicate entering and exiting a roundabout.

  • It is illegal to drink alcohol while driving or to drive drunk.

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