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Driving in New Zealand

Driving in New Zealand

From behind the wheel of a car is how most travelers get to navigate around New Zealand.

Driving in New Zealand's South Island.
Driving in New Zealand's South Island

Driving in New Zealand gives you the freedom to fully enjoy any part of the country you like. 

Sure, train travel in New Zealand is a relaxing, fun way to see the country, but there is no high-speed rail and New Zealand's railway network is quite limited, especially in the South Island.

Of course, there are buses, too, but, like trains, you can't stop and take in the scenery wherever you like.

On the other hand, the road network in New Zealand is extensive and well-developed.

Useful Facts about Driving in New Zealand

Cars drive on the left in New Zealand. That is useful fact number one! For those used to driving on the right, it means being extra careful when turning at intersections.

Also, when it comes to giving way (yielding), New Zealand uses the right-hand rule. That is, whenever there is traffic coming from your right, whether at an intersection or roundabout, you are one who must give way (yield).

At pedestrian (zebra) crossings, car drivers are legally required to stop for anyone crossing the road or who has stopped at the curb and is obviously wishing to cross.

The maximum open-road driving speed in New Zealand is 100 km/h (62 mph). Through built-up areas, the speed limit is usually 50 km/h (31 mph).

Electric vehicle charging station, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.
Electric vehicle charging station, Lake Tekapo

Costs of Driving in New Zealand

When renting a car, you can expect to pay about NZD 100 per day for an SUV/crossover, and less for smaller vehicle.

And for gasoline, (called "petrol" in New Zealand) you can expect to pay about NZD 2.20 per liter. For European readers that is about EUR 1.30 per liter, and for American readers, about USD 5.80 per gallon.

Put those costs together, and driving in New Zealand is not cheap. For this reason, a hybrid or electric rental car is an attractive open.

New Zealand has a good network of electric vehicle charging stations. As of December 2020, they charge $0.25/kWh + $0.25/minute.

Petrol stations and charging stations almost always include a convenience store and public toilets.

However, you'll be pleased to know that New Zealand has only three toll roads, which total a mere 27 km. One is just north of Auckland: the Northern Gateway Toll Road, and two in Tauranga: the Tauranga Eastern Link Toll Road and Takitimu Drive Toll Road. All cost only about NZD 2 to traverse. Therefore, tolls will not contribute to your motoring costs in New Zealand.

Road around the town square of Martinborough, Wairarapa, New Zealand.
Road around town square, Martinborough

License to Drive in New Zealand

If you have a driving license in your own country, you can use it to drive in New Zealand for a 12-month period. However, if it is not in English, you will have to get it translated and carry both the original and the translation with you. You cannot translate it yourself and you must use an approved translator.

Most New Zealand roads are in good order, paved, free of potholes, and well marked. Yet, they can often be narrow, winding and undulating.

Also, the vast majority of roads are two-lane, with an opposing flow of traffic in the opposite lane.

New Zealand road signs are the international symbolic signs used all over the world. The most important ones are stop signs and speed limit signs.

Stop sign, New Zealand.

Traffic Policing in New Zealand

On the topic of speed limits ... the New Zealand police will readily pick the low-hanging fruit of minor traffic incursions on deserted country roads. For example, the only road fine I have even been given was for driving just 7 km/h (4.35 mph) above the speed limit on a long, flat, straight, completely deserted rural road outside of Napier that had no speed limit signs posted anywhere.

And the only other time beside that I have ever been stopped by police was, again, in the countryside, without another car in sight, this time on a long, flat, straight, completely deserted rural road outside New Plymouth. I thought I had come to a complete halt at a stop sign, but the police officer (who came seemingly out of nowhere) claimed my wheels had been observed (through binoculars, maybe?) to be still moving ever so slightly.

Moral of the story: 1. if you're the only car on the road and you're not sure what the speed limit is, stick to 50 km/h until you come to a speed sign, or until another car is in front of you. 2. Don't assume that just because you're in the boonies you're not being observed, or that minor infringements will be overlooked.

The twists, bends and turns of New Zealand roads can be very dangerous if not approached with respect and caution. Speed and not paying full attention to driving can kill.

Though, for the record, New Zealand roads are comparatively safe, with about 10 road fatalities per 100,000 vehicles. For reference, the figure is 5.7 in the United Kingdom, 7.4 in Australia, 8.9 in Canada, and 14.2 in the United States.

For extra safety, it is highly recommended that you keep your headlights on (dipped) even during daylight hours.

Tailgating is quite common in New Zealand, especially in rural areas, where most culprits are locals. Do not feel pressured to speed up if you are being tailgated. On the other hand, it is wise to let them pass you when the opportunity arises.

Also if you are driving slower than most traffic, do the courteous thing and pull over when possible to let the other cars pass.

Travel times

New Zealand is a largely mountainous country the size of Great Britain (or, for American readers, Colorado). In other words, it's by no means tiny. Therefore, be aware that underestimating travel times in New Zealand is easy to do, especially with all the ups and downs and twists and turns of many of the routes.

The best driving vacations are relaxed affairs. But if you find yourself speeding because the ride is taking longer than you'd figured, you're more likely to have an accident.

For this reason, it pays to use an online travel time and distance calculator when planning your trip, and to add enough time to it for scenic stops, rest stops, traffic congestion, etc.

The stern stuff

Next, some words of friendly warning...

Wearing a seatbelt is compulsory in New Zealand, for all occupants of a vehicle, front seats and back seats.

Using a phone while driving is illegal. You are subject to an $80 fine if caught.

Don't drink and drive. If you are found to be above the blood or breath alcohol limit, you will be instantly disqualified from driving for 12 hours. For a blood alcohol level of 50-80 mg, you also get an instant $200. But over that, you will be prosecuted and face a penalty of up to $4,500 in fines and/or up to 3 months imprisonment.

The fluffy stuff

Finally, it doesn't happen as much these days, but in rural areas you may come across a flock of sheep on the road. They are being moved by a farmer and their dogs from one paddock to another. Slow right down, go with the flow, and get your passenger(s) to take lots of pictures!

Happy and safe driving! Enjoy beautiful New Zealand.

Main street of the town of Lawrence, New Zealand.
Main street of the town of Lawrence.

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