How difficult is it to drive in New Zealand?

Driving on the left side of the road in New Zealand is not as daunting or difficult as it seems. This article lists 10 tips to help keep you safe and on the right side - i.e. the left side - of the road when driving in New Zealand.

In New Zealand, we drive on the left, and since I grew up and learned to drive on the right, I had to shift my thinking to driving on the left instead of the right when I moved here. It is not a difficult thing to do, though.

Most roads in New Zealand only have two lanes. Highways may have an extra passing lane in some sections.

Motorways, which are generally only around larger cities such as Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington generally have more than 2 lanes.

And a few roads, especially on the South Island, have one-lane bridges to cross rivers and creeks.

So it is safe to assume that you’ll be driving most of the time on roads with oncoming traffic.

From driving on the right to driving on the left in New Zealand

When I learned to drive, I learned to drive on the right side of the road. When I came to New Zealand, I had to drive on the left side of the road and do all of the navigation all by myself, because I was traveling alone and still do.

With navigation I mean, read maps, read road signs, look for street names, etc. etc., to get from one place to the next.

You might be asking yourself how I was able to do it all alone? That is, focus on driving on the left side of the road, read road signs, and not get lost?

Here are some tips I’d like to share with you…

10 Tips for driving in New Zealand

1. Choose an automatic car instead of a manual car

Picture of tourist activity sign and driving on the left side of the road in New Zealand

Photo: Tourist activity sign and driving on the left side of the road in New Zealand

I rented a car with an automatic transmission, and I still do whenever I travel the country.

Why? Because, I learned to drive stick-shift using my right hand to shift gears. Here I would have to use my left hand to do so.

While I’ve heard from similarly challenged people as myself that it is easy to learn, I’ve never really tried it, because it would cost me extra concentration to simultaneously change gears and watch where I’m going.

If you are fortunate enough to have someone sitting next to you who can tell you which turn you should take next, so who is doing the navigation for you, you might want to rent a manual car, because they are generally cheaper than automatic cars. Otherwise, I’d recommend going with an automatic.

2. Learn the New Zealand Road Code before you arrive in New Zealand
Learn the rules of the road before you arrive in New Zealand. Learn what the road signs mean and be prepared for differences with driving in your own country.

New Zealand has some very funny driving rules, which you should know about. Kiwis (New Zealanders) can easily spot a tourist when a tourist does not give way (yield) when they should have given way.
Update: As of March 25, 2012, the road rules used in New Zealand are aligned with international road rules, so most of what you’ve learned and applied in your own country, you should be able to apply here in New Zealand.

But still study up on the New Zealand Road Code before you come over.

3. Purchase a good set of road maps
Buy a good New Zealand road atlas. Although most car rental companies will provide you with maps, these maps do not have enough detail on them to help you find minor roads.

4. Map out your route before you start to drive
Before heading out or even starting to drive, map out the route you’ll be taking, and then memorize it. This can get tricky when you’re in a large city like Auckland where there are many roads, so many decisions to make.

5. Memorize the locations of large cities in New Zealand
Memorize the map of New Zealand in your head. To get to your destination, most of the time you only need to know the names of larger cities, because those will be listed on the large green signs on the roads and highways. So by memorizing the map of New Zealand, you’ll know in which direction to head.

6. Use landmarks, the sun, a compass, or a GPS to help you navigate
Know in what direction you’re currently driving (East, West, North, South), know in which direction you should be driving, look for roads (preferably main roads) that are traveling in the direction you want to go and hook onto them. Main roads eventually lead to highways.

7. Know how long a drive will take before you hit the road
Know how long it can take approximately to get from point A to point B and plan your journey accordingly. Most good road atlases will list the approximate driving times and distances between the larger cities in New Zealand.

If you’re not used to driving 11 hours non-stop, I don’t recommend coming to New Zealand and doing that over here. Take your time while traveling from city to city.

While New Zealand is a small country compared to for example Canada or the United States, it can take up to 7 hours to drive from Christchurch to Queenstown for example.

Roads can be long, straight, and boring sometimes, but they can also be very hilly and winding, which can get you tired. And don’t forget you’ll be driving on roads that are completely unknown to you, so don’t rush and take all the time you need.

8. Rest adequately before you hit the road and also during long drives
If you’re experiencing driver’s fatigue, which you may if you haven’t had enough sleep or have been driving for a long time, take a break.

It is recommended to take a 10-minute rest break every hour when driving. You can stop at picnic spots, a roadside cafe, or a lake to take a brief rest from driving before continuing your journey.

Driving tired is almost as bad as drinking and driving.

9. Don’t panic if you get lost
While it is difficult to get lost in New Zealand, it can and does happen. The best thing to do if you cannot figure out where you are on a map, is to stop and ask for directions. Kiwis are some of the most helpful people in the world.

The only place I’ve gotten lost is while driving in Auckland. Other than that, even when I thought I was lost, I’ve always been able to find my way again just by following my instincts.

10. Don’t drink and drive
Be courteous on the road and please have consideration with other road users (cyclists and farmers). If you know you’re going to be drinking, let someone else drive.

Some car rental companies require you to provide them with a list of all of the people who might drive the car. They usually ask you who will be driving the car when you pick up the car. So if you are traveling with more people and know you might drink, remember to assign a designated driver when you pick up the car.

Bonus tip to stay on the left side of the road
Whenever you’re driving on a two-lane road, keep the center line on your side (the driver’s side) of the car. This will automatically help you stay on the left side of the road.

Final words on driving in New Zealand

Finally, I’d like to share the biggest challenge I’ve encountered while driving for the first time on the left in New Zealand.

The easy part will be following cars, that is, if there are cars ahead of you, you can just follow them and you’ll be allright – it will be easy to stay on the left side of the road that way.

The difficult part will probably be getting back on the road after stopping somewhere. You must remind yourself to get in the left lane when you get back onto the road.

I can remember a comical situation near Whakapapa when I had briefly stopped at the visitor’s center and got back onto the road, only to catch myself driving on the right side of the road. Luckily I became aware of this after just a few seconds of starting to drive.

Don’t let the same thing happen to you, because you can get into an accident that way. Luckily the road was empty at the time it happened to me.

And last but not least, the following 2-minute video provides some general information about driving in New Zealand. For all of the New Zealand driving rules, please refer to the New Zealand Road Code web site. Enjoy New Zealand when you come over, and don’t be afraid to drive in New Zealand.


Note: This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm all details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.


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