Driving in New Zealand is different to driving in other countries. What do you need to know before getting behind the wheel?

Exploring New Zealand’s beautiful landscapes by car, campervan or motorhome is a popular way to get around. Even if you’re used to driving in other places, you need to be well aware of things like weather extremes, narrow, windy roads and different road rules before you begin on your journey.

What’s different about driving in New Zealand?

We drive on the left hand side of the road and our vehicles seat the driver on the right.
Always drive on the left hand side of the road in New Zealand. If you’re used to driving on the right hand side of the road, this can be a challenge to remember especially when pulling out into traffic. Remember - if you are driving, you must be seated in the middle of the road – your front seat passenger will be the on edge of the road.

Never drive when you are tired and take regular breaks.
It doesn’t matter what country you are driving in, it is extremely dangerous to drive when you are tired. Visitors to New Zealand might be tired because of jet-lag, early starts and late nights, or because they had a long day driving the day before. Because driving in New Zealand can be very different to other countries, you need to be well-rested and alert – tired drivers are dangerous drivers.

Many roads have varying conditions, and can be narrow, windy and cover hilly terrain.

New Zealand’s diverse terrain means roads are often narrow, hilly and windy with plenty of sharp corners. Outside of the main cities, there are very few motorways. Most of our roads are single lane in each direction without barriers in between. You may also encounter gravel roads. It’s important to allow plenty of time, go slow and pull over in a safe place if traffic wants to pass from behind you. Take plenty of breaks so that you stay alert.

It’s easy to underestimate drive times when looking at a map.
Maps don’t show how narrow and windy roads can be. What might look like a short trip can take a long time. For example: Hokitika to the town of Haast, a popular drive for visitors stopping to see New Zealand’s glaciers, is 278km (172mi) on the map and may look like a short 3-hour drive. However, drivers should allow for up to 4 hours’ of driving time because of the windy road. This is common all over New Zealand –always allow for more time than you think you’ll need. 

Weather-related hazards are commonplace.

In New Zealand, you might experience four seasons in one day. It’s possible to start your day off with blue sky and sunshine, but arrive at your destination in rain and hail. Because of this, weather related hazards on the road can occur at any time. Always check the weather forecast before departing, and adjust your plans accordingly. If you’re driving in the South Island in winter, spring or late autumn, snow is a possibility – ensure that you’re carrying chains if a cold snap has been forecast. Most rental companies will provide you with chains and demonstrate how to fit them. Read our winter driving tips.

Winter roads can be treacherous.
Snow, ice and fog can be common in winter, especially in the South Island and around mountain passes. Ensure you’re clued up on the weather forecast for the region that you’re driving in, leave large following distances and make sure you’re travelling with snow chains (and know how to fit them).

Not all New Zealand rail crossings have automatic alarms.
Only half of the 1500 rail crossings in New Zealand have automatic alarms. When red lights are flashing it means a train is coming so stop and only proceed once the lights have stopped flashing. Other crossings have a ‘Railway Crossing’ sign and give way or stop signs only. If you see this, stop, look both ways and only cross the track if there are no trains approaching.

In addition to the above, it's a good idea to get familiar with important New Zealand road rules before your arrival.

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