Australians drive on the left-hand side of the road and use the metric system of distances and speeds.
Australia is as large as continental USA, but the population is only 22.5 million, so the road network is not as well developed, especially away from the coastal areas. There are often very long distances between towns which have fuel, water and/or food.
Australian cars are mostly right-hand drive vehicles, and have automatic transmission, although manuals (stick-shift) are still widely available and are cheaper to hire. The gear shift is positioned for operation by the left hand and is usually on the floor. Selecting a vehicle with automatic transmission could help minimise the period of adjustment for drivers more used to driving on the right. There should be no trouble getting an automatic transmission unless you opt for the cheapest, smallest model. Note also that the park brake is usually a hand-operated lever in the centre of the vehicle.
Legal issues and safety
- There is a consistent set of road rules across Australia. This is a synopsis of pertinent points, not a definitive or authoritative text on road traffic regulations!
- Drivers in Australia require a valid driver's licence. You can drive with a foreign (English language) licence for three months. Longer than that, you need to get a licence from an Australian state. If your licence is not in English, you need to get an International Driving Permit from the Automobile Association in your home country before coming to Australia.
- There's more specific information on licences here.
- Seat belts must be worn by all occupants. Children and babies must be restrained in approved safety harnesses and capsules, in some states up to 7 years old. Seatbelt laws are strictly enforced, and the onus is on the driver to ensure all passengers are buckled up.
Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- The blood alcohol limit is 0.05% throughout Australia, with zero limits for learners and drivers with provisional licences ("P" plates) in some states. Random alcohol and drug tests are conducted by the police. If caught driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, a first offender might expect a fine and a period of driving suspension. This is considered to be a criminal offence. Fines will generally be determined by a court, based on how high your reading is. Refusing a random breath test is also an offence and similar penalties apply as for driving under the influence of alcohol.
- In case of an accident involving injury or death to any person, the police and appropriate emergency response authorities must be contacted. The driver of any vehicle involved in an accident in which a person may be injured or killed is legally required to stop and render assistance. The penalties for leaving an accident scene can be severe. Persons rendering first aid in good faith in Australia are protected by law and are not at risk of legal action against them.
- Speed limits are clearly signposted. A default 50km/h speed limit applies in urban areas with street lights in the rare event that there is no other signposted limit. Signposted school zones have a 40km/h limit during certain school hours, generally 8am to 9.30am and 2.30pm to 4pm and are signposted in NSW and VIC, often with flashing lights. These limits also apply to days in which teachers but not students attend school. It is important to be aware holidays vary from state to state so crossing borders can suddenly mean you are in a school zone. In South Australia, school zones have a 25km/h limit. In Queensland, school zones on roads with higher speed limits may also be signposted at 60km/h or 80km/h. Victoria may have 60km/h school zones on roads with higher speed limits. The Australian Capital Territory's school zones are 40km/h but apply for the whole of the school day.
- The speed limit outside the cities also varies between states. In Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, the default speed limit is 100km/h. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory the default speed limit is 110km/h and in the Northern Territory it can be up to 130km/h on major highways.
- Speed cameras are used in all states and territories of Australia, with some states using hidden cameras, others preferring obviously placed ones. Point-to-point speed checks (over a certain distance) or aerial speed checks are also used in certain places. All police vehicles should be presumed to have speed radars. The state of Victoria is particularly strict on speeding. There is no defined margin of tolerance for speeding. Cameras also monitor red (stop) lights.
- Rental car companies often charge an administration fee if speeding or other fines are incurred, and will pass your name and address to the authorities. Fine notices are invariably sent to overseas addresses. Your fine won't generally be pursued outside Australia, but you should consider the consequences if you wish to drive in Australia in the future.
- On the day before public holiday weekends and between Christmas and New Years Day, some states double their fines and demerit points due to the risk of accidents on these busy weekends.
- As for any big city, Australia's major cities can be congested, so it’s best to avoid driving in the Central Business District (CBD) during early morning and late afternoon peak times.
Park on the left had side of the road well clear of all traffic. Do not park on the opposite side (i.e. facing the oncoming traffic) as you will incur a fine.
Unique to Melbourne
A hazard unique to Melbourne's CBD and the inner suburbs are trams (streetcars).
There are three important tram-related rules you must observe:
- Normally, cars drive over the tram tracks and there will be a dotted yellow lane marker left of the tracks which means cars are permitted to drive in the tram lane. If there’s a solid yellow line next to the tram lane, cars are not permitted to drive in the tram track lane.
- Tram passengers have right of way when crossing the road to or from a tram (open tram doors count as a stop sign - some of them actually have a sign that comes out), so do not drive a vehicle past a tram at a stop, unless the tram is stopped at a cordoned off stop with barriers.
- As many roads in Melbourne's CBD have tram tracks, turning right across the tram tracks can be difficult. To get around this problem, the "hook turn" was invented. This involves turning right from the left lane. To execute a hook turn, approach the intersection in the left lane, and indicate to turn right. Proceed into the intersection as far left as possible (avoiding the pedestrian crossing), moving across until you end up being perpendicular to traffic which is heading in the direction you want to turn (who are waiting at a red light). Observe the traffic lights to your right. Once green, you turn to your right and proceed as normal. Signs indicating whether a hook turn is necessary are hung off tram power lines at the intersection. Do not attempt a hook turn at other intersections.
Hook turns can be quite intimidating for the novice: The Hook Turn Explained Further
- It is illegal to turn left on a red traffic signal unless signposted.
- In some states it is illegal to do a U-turn at a traffic signal unless otherwise signed. In Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory this move is allowed on a right arrow except where signposted.
- Pedestrians always have the right of way.
- Some motorways, bridges, and tunnels in or near Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney require payment of tolls. In some cases (especially in Melbourne and Sydney), some tolls can only be paid electronically with a transponder fitted inside the car – not in cash.
- 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. There are information signs about phone numbers and websites at toll collection points.
- If renting a car in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane, ask the rental company about tolls. Google “Toll roads Melbourne"etc, to find the correct pre-payment web site.
- Because Australians drive on the left, traffic goes clockwise around a roundabout. When approaching a roundabout, you need to give way to vehicles already on the roundabout, that is, coming from your right.
- When two roads cross at a small roundabout, signal left before turning left, indicate right before turning right, and do not indicate if going straight.
- On a larger roundabout with more exits, don't indicate left until you are taking the next exit (unless left is the first exit).
- On multi-lane roundabouts, arrows will be painted on the road indicating which lane you should be in for specific directions. Otherwise, just take the left lane for left, or the right lane for right, and either lane to go straight.
Beyond the City
- Outside of major cities and the main routes between some state capitals, Australian highways are mainly two lane, undivided, sealed asphalt roads. While less than 15% of Australia's population lives in regional and rural areas, about 60% of fatal accidents occur on these roads.
- Allowable speed limits are often the same as freeways (speed limits vary between 90km/h and 110km/h), yet the conditions are more dangerous than freeways because it is dual-carriageway, there is no barrier or division from oncoming traffic, and the condition of "country" roads often falls well short of "ideal".
- Motorists need to be well prepared and self-sufficient before travelling through remote areas.
- Permits are often necessary to travel through aboriginal tribal lands in certain remote areas. Most of these are in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.
- Most cars run on Unleaded Petrol (ULP).
- Some (especially euro-exotica, 4WDs and trucks) use diesel.
- Almost all service (gas) stations are self-serve.
- Even on major regional roads, service stations and roadhouses may close overnight. If you are planning a long drive at night, make sure you plan ahead, and know where and when you are going to get fuel.
Animals and Road Kill
- Many accidents occur at night due to driver fatigue, and the presence of native animals which become more active in the evenings.
- Some car hire firms impose a curfew on driving after sunset in Western Australia and the Northern Territory for very good reason.
- Try to arrive at your destination well before nightfall. If forced to travel at night, reduce your speed and remain alert.