According to World Standards, about 35% of the world population drives on the left-side of the road, and the countries that do are mostly former British Colonies. This point of contention has created an on going debate with opposing countries that often refer to their side of the road as the ‘right’ side, as in the correct way to drive. While this interesting little nugget of information is quite fascinating, it did absolutely nothing to prepare us for driving on the left in New Zealand!
As native right-side drivers, driving on the left for the first time can conjure a set of mix emotions ranging from incredibly intimidating to shrugging it off as no brainer. Regardless of the category you may fall into, the practice of developing a new habit can be a challenging task and shouldn’t be taken lightly!
To get you started, here are 12 important facts to drive safely in New Zealand. For a good laugh, watch the video at the end as Lucas re-learns how to drive a manual (aka stick shift) when the gear shift is on the left!
1. Drivers License Requirements
A valid driver’s license or permit is required at all times when driving in New Zealand. You are eligible to drive if you own an overseas license that is in English. If your license remains valid, you can drive for a maximum of 12 months from the date you arrive in New Zealand. If you re-enter the country at any point, the 12-month period is extended from the date of your arrival. If you wish to continue driving, after 12 months, you must obtain a New Zealand driver’s license.
2. Keep Left
Think left. Look left. Embrace the left. Sing Beyonce’s song to the left, to the left if you have to. This may seem obvious however old habits die hard and as research suggests, it takes 21 days to form a new habit. If you are fortunate enough to have a travel buddy as a passenger, ask them to keep you on your toes. If you’re driving solo, no worries! Due to the influx of right-side-driving tourists, many countries have placed directional arrows on roadways and signs near the roundabout exits as a friendly reminder. By all means just stay left!
- Additional Tips to Consider:
*When pulling out onto the road, keep left
*If an ambulance or cop car requires you to pull over, keep left
*On the motorway, keep left except when overtaking a vehicle; pass the car on their right
3. Recognize that You are a Newbie
Say it with me, I am new to driving on the left and I will not be a know-it-all. Good. If you are accustomed to driving on the right side of the road your entire life, recognize that you are new to the left-side driving scene. Before heading out on the road, familiarize yourself with the car’s features including the steering wheel, driving mirrors and shifting gears if it is a manual (more details on driving stick shift in a minute). One of the common mistakes for newbies is confusing the windshield wipers with the car signal! Ensure that you’re comfortable with the car features before starting your journey.
4. Abandon Mobile Devices
Much like parts of the US, driving with hand-held mobile devices is illegal, unless the device is mounted or completely hands free. For everyone’s safety on the road, reading, writing or composing a text message while driving is illegal. If you are using a GPS application on your mobile device, be sure to sort the particulars before driving or lead it to your co-pilot in the passenger’s seat.
5. Alcohol and Drug Consumption
The laws surrounding the use of alcohol and drugs while driving is strictly enforced in New Zealand and the penalties are severe. There is a zero alcohol limit for drivers under 20 years old which means you are not allowed to drive if there is the slightest percentage of alcohol in your blood or breath. For drivers 20 years and over, the alcohol limit is 50 milligrams per 100 milliliters of blood or 250 micrograms per liter of breath. If you’re not sure about the alcohol calculations, don’t drink and drive and you will be fine.
6. Buckle Up
By law, everyone in a vehicle must wear a safety belt whether in the front or back seats. Children under seven years of age must be secured in an approved child restraint.
7. Calculating Travel Time
When driving in New Zealand, it is easy to underestimate travel times to your destination. On the map, distances may seem short however New Zealand roads typically differ in that they can be narrower, covered with hilly terrain or turn into unsealed gravel roads. Travel times may also increase due to frequent stops along the way to take photographs of the beautiful landscape. Enjoy every moment of it and stop at every chance you can get!
8. No Left Turns on Red
At an intersection, refrain from turning left when the traffic signals are red. Typically, you will notice that the green lights will signal drivers to go straight while those turning right will have a red arrow. Whenever turning at traffic signals, be on the lookout for pedestrians crossing the road.
9. One-lane Bridges
Quite a few roads in New Zealand have one-lane bridges where vehicles must give way to drivers traveling in the opposite direction. When arriving at a bridge, proceed cautiously and check for traffic. To determine whether you should wait before crossing the bridge, look for a red and white sign marked ‘give way’ for on-coming traffic. Once the cars exit, you are free to cross.
10. Parallel Parking
In New Zealand, parallel parking on the wrong side of the road can lead to fines or being towed away. To avoid receiving a traffic citation, park in the direction of traffic flow on the left.
11. Master the Roundabouts
It wasn’t until we visited New Zealand did we encounter a significant number of roundabouts. We went from experiencing, at the most, one roundabout per week in the US to several within a few kilometers apart in New Zealand. In the States, roundabouts would be the equivalent of a four-way stop where cars momentarily paused before the next vehicle continues forward. Surprisingly, there is such a debate about the efficiency of a roundabout versus a four-way stop that Myth Busters tested which traffic system was better. Influenced by the British, the roundabout creates a cyclical free flow of continuous traffic with multiple exits. As the navigator in the passenger’s seat, signaling the correct exit by pointing across the dashboard did little to help Lucas as the driver. To avoid confusion, I learned to say take the second exit (for example) when directing him as to which street to turn onto.
According to the New Zealand Transportation agency, on average, three people are killed and more than 250 are injured every year in crashes at roundabouts. The major contributor in the crashes in uncertainty as drivers are unsure as to how they should proceed while others misinterpret a driver’s intent. When entering a roundabout, be sure to give way to all traffic that will cross your path, signal before you exit and remain in the correct exit lane if entering a multi-lane roundabout.
12. Driving a Manual
Surprisingly, it’s common for car rental companies to provide customers with a manual car as opposed to an automatic. This common practice poses two challenges: 1). It’s a potential nightmare for the inexperienced driver who has yet to master a manual and 2). For the experienced manual driver, it is sure to cause panic for those unfamiliar with the gear shift located on the left, let alone remembering to drive on the proper side of the road! Our experience definitely fell into the latter category. Since Lucas is an experienced manual driver back home, he had to rewire his brain to shift gears with his left hand while steering with his right. It was a moment of intense pressure as we almost left the rental place without a car. Thankfully after a few trial runs in the parking lot, Lucas was able to figure out the mechanics of the car.
Insider Tip: If you are unfamiliar with driving a manual car, it may be in your best interest to learn how to drive one before traveling. The majority of the cars that we’ve received from various rental companies were stick shifts, even at the request of an automatic. Our advice is that if you are accustomed to driving an automatic, learn how to drive a manual as this is not the first county that provided a manual without forewarning.
To see more of our first driving experience in New Zealand, check out our vlog on our YouTube channel!
Learning to drive on the left may not be a test of your intelligence but initially, it requires quite a bit of patience and practice to get you going. What information or tips for driving on the left do you have? Let us know in the comments below!