Driving in Australia is an experience to be savoured. The wide-open spaces and magnificent natural scenery is well worth taking the time to visit. Speed and distance in Australia are measured in kilometres and kilometres per hour. Australians drive on the left-hand side of the road.
Most Australians live on the coast. Roads within and between the cities and major towns are generally reliable and in good condition, as are the main highways that join the state and territory capital cities. Although highways between major cities are well-maintained, motorists may still travel for hundreds of kilometres between towns or road houses with limited opportunities to refuel, get water, refreshments, or use toilets. Road conditions can be difficult in remote areas and the large and less populated areas in the middle of Australia (the “Outback”). Not all roads are sealed, and some may not be passable in certain seasons or weather conditions. Motorists need to be self-sufficient and prepared when travelling in remote areas. Permits may also be required to travel through certain remote locations.
Legal issues and safety
Driving is regulated by state government authorities, but there is a consistent set of road rules across Australia. Licences Drivers in Australia require a valid driving licence. Foreign licences in English are considered valid for driving in Australia for visitors for three months. If your licence is not in English, an International Driving Permit which is issued in your home country before arrival in Australia is required. Australian licenses are issued by the respective state and territory governments. Visitors with licenses from Austria, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guernsey, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, Japan, Jersey, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States may convert their foreign licenses to an Australian one after paying an administrative fee. All other foreign license holders are required to sit for a theory and practical test before they can get an Australian license.
Use of seat belts is compulsory for drivers and all vehicle passengers, and infants must be secured with approved safety capsules and harnesses. Seatbelt laws are enforced, and the onus is on the driver to ensure all passengers are buckled. Penalties apply to the driver of the vehicle, and include demerit points which may lead to license suspension. A fine of around $250 per unsecured driver or passenger will apply.
Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
The blood alcohol limit is 0.05% throughout Australia. Learner and provisional drivers are not permitted to have any alcohol in their system whilst driving. Police conduct random breath tests along both major routes and back streets, both in cities and in the country. A driver does not have to be driving suspiciously or have committed any driving offence to be stopped by police for a random breath test.If you are caught driving under the influence of alcohol, you will have to make a court appearance. For a first offence, a fine and a period of suspension would normally be imposed if there are no aggravating circumstances. Refusing a random breath test is also an offence and similar penalties apply as for driving under the influence of alcohol. Also, random drug testing is in place in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.
In case of an accident involving injury or death to any person, the police and appropriate emergency response authorities must be contacted. Phone the Australian emergency number 000. The GSM standard emergency number 112 also works from any mobile phone. 112 will use any available network and will work even with an overseas GSM phone without roaming enabled. Emergency numbers from other countries (such as 911) do not work in Australia.The driver of any vehicle involved in an accident in which a person may be injured or killed or there is serious property damage is legally required to stop and render assistance. The penalties for leaving an accident scene can be severe (up to 10 years imprisonment), even if you are not at fault. You must contact appropriate emergency authorities, but you are not required to give first aid if you have not had training. Persons rendering first aid in good faith in Australia are protected by law and are not at risk of legal action against them. If you can help at an accident scene, always do so.
A mobile speed camera in Victoria. The cars used are completely unmarked, and there is no sign the vehicle is a speed camera car coming from behind.Speed cameras are used in all states and territories of Australia, with some states using hidden cameras, others preferring obviously placed ones. The strictest place for speed limit enforcement is Victoria, with speed cameras being hidden in unmarked cars and having low tolerance for excess speed. Police speed traps, and mobile patrols also pull over cars for exceeding the speed limit. Exceeding the speed limit by 10km/h or so will usually result in you being sent a fine notice of around $200 (and demerit points if driving on an Australian licence). Exceeding the speed limit by more than 30km/h can result in a court appearance and possible criminal conviction.Cameras also monitor red lights, and a similar fine will result. Drug or alcohol offences invariably result in a court appearance, and a criminal conviction may result. Many Australian drivers drive a little over the speed limit, but large differences in traffic speeds from the signposted limits are uncommon.Fine notices are invariably sent to overseas addresses. Rental car companies often charge an administration fee if fines are incurred, and will pass your name on to the debt collection authorities.
Some motorways, bridges, and tunnels in major cities require payment of tolls of up to $8. In some cases, a cash payment can be made at tollbooths on the road, but there is an ongoing trend to automating toll collection with the use of radio transponders installed in vehicles. Some roads have facilities to collect tolls only electronically in this way. If you drive on such a road without a transponder, a photo is taken of your vehicle’s number plate, and you have a day to phone a number or visit a website and arrange payment (plus an additional processing fee) before a fine is issued. Toll roads are clearly signposted and many offer opportunities to exit before reaching the tolling point to take an untolled route. Avoiding toll roads may save you a few dollars, but you may pay in extra travel time, fuel cost, and navigation difficulties, particularly during peak travel times. If hiring a car, ask the agency for advice on toll roads.
Speed limits are signposted at regular intervals, and can change frequently. A default 50km/h speed limit applies in urban areas with street lights in the very rare event that there is no signposted speed. Signposted school zones have a 40km/h limit during school travel hours, which is signposted, with South Australian school zones being 25km/h. In Queensland, school zones on roads with higher speed limits may also be signposted at 60km/h or 80km/h. Victoria also has 60km/h school zones on roads with higher speed limits.When in metropolitan areas or passing through country towns, you must adhere strictly to the speed limit. Firstly, they are heavily enforced, secondly there are many elderly folk wandering the streets of country towns, thirdly there are children in metropolitan areas, and fourthly in major cities, drivers are blind, uncourteous (or both) and may pull out in front of you from side streets. Taxi drivers and P-platers are the worst offenders. Traffic signalsIt is illegal to turn left on a red traffic signal. It is illegal to do a U-turn at a traffic signal unless there is a sign explicitly permitting it except in Victoria where you can do a U-turn at any intersection.
Maximum speeds vary between states and are normally signposted .The default open road speed limit varies between states in Australia. Those default limits should always be observed in rural and regional areas where there is no signposted speed limit shown and the area has no street lights and is away from town ships or built up areas. It is generally best to assume that the default limit is 100km/h unless you are sure a higher limit is applicable. 100 km/h is normally the maximum speed limit on Australian roads outside a built-up area where no other speed limit is sign-posted.When travelling on un-paved or gravel roads the posted limit may not be appropriate to the prevailing conditions. You should never presume the road is safe to travel at the posted speed limit, the actual safe speeds of travel on unsealed roads may vary tremendously within a short space of both time and distance due to current weather and/or road conditions. For this reason many gravel and dirt roads in Australia do not have speed limit signs posted lest they should mislead road users into believing that the posted speed is either achievable or safe. As an example of this, in Tasmania they do not normally install advisory speed signs on unsealed roads where travel speeds greater than 35 km/h can be achieved. In the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland the default speed limit on an open road is 100km/h.
In New South Wales the posted speed limit is normally 110km/h on motorways (freeways/tollways) in non-built up areas, high quality rural (divided) roads and (undivided) rural roads with low traffic volume in the western part of the state, other parts of the state are a default maximum speed of 100km/h unless indicated otherwise. In South Australia the default speed limit is 100km/h, though many major rural roads and state highways are posted at 110km/h. In the Northern Territory the default speed limit is 110km/h, with speed limits of up to 130km/h on major highways away from urban areas. In Western Australia the default speed limit for open areas is 110 km/h with a limit for freeways of 100 km/h unless zoned otherwise.
Australia is the land of kangaroos, emus, wombats, feral camels, horses, rabbits and cattle. Sometimes these animals wander onto roadways. Kangaroos in particular will leap across roadways directly in front of vehicles, and are more likely to hop along the roadway than hop off it. Emus also run across roads and have no sense of how to get out of the way of a car. Off the main highways many roads run adjacent to farms that are unfenced, and stock on the road are common. Many animals caught in headlights come to a complete halt, but a short blast on the car horn may help startle them into moving off the road. Briefly switching off your headlights may also encourage them to move on. Most animal collisions occur at dusk, at dawn, or at night when some animals are more active less visible. Drive carefully when you spot these big animals and be ready to use your brakes. Swerving to avoid an animal can also lead to fatalities, so if the choice is between hitting the animal or potentially losing control of the vehicle, hit the animal.
Road trains are a special hazard on Australian roads. These leviathans can reach lengths of up to 55 m, with up to four trailers, so treat them with care and respect. Oncoming road trains should be given all the space they need. On asphalt roads, you should slow down and drive partly on the road shoulder if possible.
In the north of Australia, the period from November (sometimes even October) to March is considered the Wet Season. Many remote communities (and even some major towns on the Queensland coast) are completely isolated during the Wet, unless they have a landing strip for light aircraft. Rivers that are dry at other times of the year can overflow their banks due to extremely high rainfall.Sometimes, bridges are washed out, or dirt roads are turned into muddy quagmires. Water levels can rise quickly from nothing to flooding. Notably, the Bruce Highway, which is the main road from Brisbane up through the Queensland coast to Cairns, is notorious for being cut for days at a time in many areas, mostly near Innisfail and Tully, which are both just south of Cairns.
Travellers intending to drive around the North should contact local authorities beforehand as they will know the most about local conditions. They will also be the poor sods called out to rescue you if you get stuck, so be polite. In Queensland, it is possible to go from Cairns to Cooktown via Mareeba or Mossman using an inland route, which is fully sealed and suitable for normal cars. If you intend to take the coastal route (starting just north of Cape Tribulation), you can’t do it whenever it is raining, unless you have a serious four-wheel drive, preferably equipped with a snorkel.If travelling around the north on unsealed (unpaved) roads, a powerful four-wheel drive vehicle is a must. Being bogged in the middle of the Outback can be fatal if one is not properly prepared.
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