Oct 262010

Can you turn left at a red light?  Do you really have to give way to the right? What about parking?  Driving in New Zealand is quite similar to other western countries but there are a few rules to bear in mind to avoid an accident ruining your time in the country.  The most important differences are outlined below.

Drive on the left

Like the UK, Australia and Japan, New Zealand drives on the left, and the steering wheel’s on the right.  There’s a mix of automatic and manual transmission with neither being dominant.

Red Lights

Unlike the USA you cannot turn left at a red light.  Some lights will have dedicated lanes that bypass the lights, but this is specific to junctions and not the norm.

Give Way to the Right When Turning Left

If you don’t pay attention to the rest of this article, read this one!  This will catch many people out during their visit to New Zealand and it could be argued it’s the cause of most of the small accidents in the country.  If you are turning left onto a side road, you must give way (yield) to traffic crossing your path from the right!

Give way to the right when turning left

This rule can be very confusing if you are on a two way road, and there is a car behind you going straight on.  Thankfully the law relating to this is due for change around 2012, but always be careful in this situation.


It’s worth taking particular care at junctions – there are some very strange ones dotted around the country!  Sometimes you may get a sign looking like you are taking a right turn, but it’s just an indication of the main road you are on having a particularly sharp bend.  Sometimes there are 4 way junctions, and sometimes you wonder why on earth they came up with the road design they did.  Most junctions are easy enough, but beware.

Speed Limits & Road Types

Speed and distance are measured in kilometres.  Speed limits are generally 50km/h in towns and cities, and 100km/h on the open road.  Some shopping areas in towns and cities will enforce a limit of 30km/h.

Apart from the more populated areas of Auckland and Wellington, multi lane motorways are not common in New Zealand.  The main highways throughout most of the country are only one lane in each direction.  There are many junctions from main roads to river access points, scenic areas and private roads so you’ll often have drivers slowing down when you may not expect it.

There can be a lot of agricultural vehicles in some areas and often farm animals are moved along the road.  If you start to see signs warning you of animals on the road and you hardly ever see any, don’t become complacent as the next time you speed around the corner you may be confronted with a road full of sheep and nowhere to go……


You must park in the direction of travel – e.g. if you see a space on the other side of the road, don’t cross into the oncoming lane and reverse into the space – you will probably get a ticket.  Also be careful that you don’t park over a fire hydrant or something – a friend recently got a ticket when doing that and there was no warning sign in place!

Take Your Time

There’s a lot to see in New Zealand, and a lot of places to pull off for a rest and refreshment.  Take advantage of them and take your time.  The roads here can be narrow and hilly and it may not be easy to pass others.  It can take a bit longer to cover the distance than you may expect so take this into consideration.  If you’re travelling 300km, don’t assume you’ll be doing 100km/h and it’ll take you just over 3 hours – there are probably a lot of towns and villages on the way where you’ll have to slow down.  Plan accordingly and leave plenty of time.

Driving with a Campervan

Campervans are big.  Campervans are heavy.  New Zealand is hilly.  If you’re driving a van, campervan or motorhome, pull over now and again if you are causing a hold up and there will be less chance of someone behind you pushing to overtake you.  Be a considerate driver.

Winter Driving

Although it’s called the ‘Desert Road’ (to the east of the Tongariro National Park), and the main road South from Taupo, it’s often affected by snow and ice, particularly in the winter.  This road is no exception – be prepared for winter.  Winter can be harsh in New Zealand particularly in the central North Island and South Island.  Be prepared for snow and ice. Some access roads to ski resorts are steep and you may be forced to put on chains to access them, or have a 4×4

Police and Speed Cameras

There can be a lot of police on the roads in New Zealand, particularly around holiday periods.  There are also speed cameras dotted around.  In the UK, speed cameras can be really obvious as sometimes have warning signs and covered with bright striped – don’t expect the same here.


Car insurance is not compulsory in New Zealand although most people have it.  Bear this in mind when you take the risk when hiring a car or campervan and carefully consider whether you want to take out the entire insurance package.

Driving Licences

You can drive in New Zealand using many driving licences or an international driving licence.  If you stay in the country for over 12 months you’ll have to get a New Zealand driving licence.


Driving in New Zealand can be very relaxing compared to other countries – there are less people around, and less built up areas.  Despite this there are the exceptions above to remember, particularly the give way rule which causes a lot of confusion to newcomers.  New Zealand has to be one of the most enjoyable counties to do a self drive tour around, so hopefully with these tips, you have a safe and hassle free experience.

If you are coming over here for a longer period, please check out our guides to Buying a Used Car or Campervan in New Zealand, or Renting a Campervan.

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