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 licence at all times when driving.
In New Zealand, drivers are required to drive on the left-hand side of the road. Generally speaking, driving in New Zealand is relatively stress-free. The only major problem is the “give way to the right” rule. Unlike in Singapore, Australia, Ireland, the UK or Japan (where people also drive on the left), New Zealand treats every uncontrolled intersection like a roundabout. This means that if you are turning left, you have to give way to vehicles turning right into the same lane.
As a rule of thumb, most New Zealand driving instructors say that – if in a collision – the other car hits 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.
New Zealand has a network of major arterial roads throughout the country that are called highways. Most are not engineered to international highway standards found in other westernised countries. Only 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.
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. Stopping on the side of a motorway without good reason is not permitted.
Drinking and driving
New Zealand Police strictly enforce alcohol limits for drivers (0.8 for drivers over 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 an evidential breath or blood alcohol test. Refusal will result in arrest.
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 or even a taxi, buckle up. You could be fined $150 if you are not wearing your seatbelt – even as a passenger.
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.
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).
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.