Tips for Driving in New Zealand

For the most part, driving in New Zealand is a pleasure. You've got a country the size of the UK with 1/15th of the population and good quality roads. But there are a few things to look out for.

Weird rules of the road

1. It's illegal to park your car facing the "wrong way", ie. parking so that the driver side door is next to the curb. However, that other US rule where you can turn on a red light does not apply in New Zealand.

2. It's illegal to ride a bike without a helmet. When a friend of mine from the great cycling nation of Holland was stopped by a New Zealand policeman and told that riding a bike without a helmet was illegal, she asked if he hadn't got more important things to do, like eating doughnuts. He fined her 50 bucks.

3. Oh, and they drive on the left in New Zealand, which will seem weird to lots of people.

4. Astonishingly, pedestrian crossings are not in sync with traffic lights. So when you're in a car at traffic lights be very wary when you get a green arrow indicating you can turn and have right of way - there's a good chance that at the same time, pedestrians get the green man telling them to cross the road right in front of your car.

There used to be a crazy giveway rule which was the exact opposite of most of the world, but thankfully it was dropped in 2012.

Sneaky ways to catch you if you speed

5. There are hidden speed cameras, unmarked police cars and policemen with speed guns hiding by the side of the road.

6. I was stunned when I got clocked speeding by a police car on the other side of the road, driving in the opposite direction – as far as I know, UK police cars can't do that yet.

I guess the bottom line is don't speed!

Driving in the city

7. The urban areas do get somewhat congested, especially in Auckland, which is by far the biggest city and the only one with more than a million people. But to put it in perpective, Los Angeles, Calcutta, Moscow, Cairo, Buenos Aires and London are all 10 times bigger than Auckland.

8. Driving in the cities of the world is always pretty stressful but some New Zealand cities do seem to have a nasty mixture of lazy drivers and aggressive drivers.

On a bad day, just driving 100m in a straight line down a main road in Christchurch I've had three near misses with three different cars. It's a bit like being in a video game – cars jumping red lights, cars changing lanes without looking or indicating, and people pulling out into the flow of traffic without looking or indicating either. I guess the bottom line is drive very defensively!

I've heard people say that the problem is Asian drivers. But I think that's just a racist cop-out. I've also heard it said that people from the country are used to driving fast on big, empty roads, so when they get stuck in city traffic they get frustrated and drive aggressively. Whether its Asian drivers or country drivers, the main thing is it's always someone else's fault.

Incidentally, in a straw poll of my immigrant friends, everyone thought the standard of driving was worse in New Zealand than where they came from (mostly Europe and the US). All except one person: apparently it's much worse in South Africa.

Driving on the open road

9. Being a sparsely populated country, there aren't as many petrol (gas) stations as you might be used to. So to avoid running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere, keep half an eye on your fuel gauge.

10. Another issue driving on the open road in New Zealand is that some of the scenery is stunning. That sounds like a plus, but unfortunately drivers looking at the landscape rather than the road leads to lots of traffic accidents.

Watch out for boy racers (hoons)

It seems like every week there's a news story about a car full of teenagers who all die in a car crash. And it's pretty easy to see why:

11. The minimum driving age in New Zealand is the lowest in the world, at just 15 years old. Whenever I saw a kid in school uniform filling a car at a gas station, I'd think "Aaah, mummy or daddy's letting them fill the car". But then the kid would pay, jump into the driver's seat and drive off.

12. Car insurance is optional in New Zealand. So someone who's just passed their driving test can buy a powerful car.

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