Safe Driving in New Zealand
Tourists were involved in nearly 600 accidents that caused death or injury in New Zealand in 2014, sparking debate over whether changes were necessary to road rules. Many of these were attributed to the drivers failing 'to adjust to local conditions', according to crash data recorded at the scenes.
What are the local conditions that are difficult for
tourist drivers to cope with?
One thing is the terrain. Because New Zealand is a small, mountainous country, many roads are narrow and twisty. It's important to be alert, and not in too much of a hurry. Allow yourself extra time in planning your journey, you won't always be able to steam along at 100 kms/hour. You will find you more likely to average around 70.
Railway level crossings are a danger to locals and tourists alike. Of the 1320 level crossings in New Zealand, only 21% of them have arm barriers and bells. 452, or 32% have flashing lights and bells, and 47% have only passive signage. Rule of thumb: never be complacent at railway level crossing. Come to a complete stop every time. If you can see a train, don't try to calculate whether you can 'beat' it. Chill out, take a couple of minutes to relax, and let it pass.
In rural areas, and frequently on main tourist routes, you will come across one-lane bridges that can be confusing. As you approach the bridge, there will be one of two signs. A red circle with a red arrow on the left hand side, and the words, 'Give way', underneath means you must give way to traffic crossing the bridge from the other direction. A blue square, with a white arrow on the left, means other traffic must give way to you. You will still need to slow down, as you will have to wait for traffic already on the bridge to pass.
Drinking and driving is a dumb idea wherever you live, but if you are a person who likes to chance it, you need to know that New Zealand's drink-drive laws have gotten significantly stricter in recent times. It is now in line with Australia at 50 mgs per 100 mls of blood. There is zero alcohol allowed for drivers under 20 years old.
For all that New Zealand has a small population, you may be surprised at how congested the roads can get at peak times. It's best to avoid the Auckland motorways during heavy weekday commuter times. Also, State Highway 1 out of Auckland, heading north, or where it joins Highway 2 to the Coromandel Peninsula and the Bay of Plenty, can experience delays during holiday periods. The main ones are the Christmas/New Year exodus, Easter, and Labour Weekend, at the end of October.
Another thing that probably won't kill you, but can get you a fine for breaking the law, is using cellphones while driving.
Be aware that petrol stations aren't as frequent off the main highways. This isn't just in far flung corners of the South Island. There's a high use alternative tourist route in the North Island from Taupo and Rotorua that passes through the town of Matamata on State Highway 27, traveling back to Auckland. It has a disconcerting stretch of 70 kms without a gas station. A better strategy is to drive from the top half of your petrol gauge.
Finally, there's the scenery. While it's amazing, it can also be distracting. You're on holiday! Pull over when you need to, soak it up, take your photos, then get back in the car to drive refreshed. Be aware of your own fatigue levels. While the time differences from most parts of Australia are minimal, when you pick up your rental car after a flight, you are likely to have already had a long and stressful day. Consider taking it easy that first day, and starting your road trip after a good local night's rest.