Driving in Australia is an experience to be savoured. It is a way to experience the wide-open spaces and magnificent natural scenery, and there are so many destinations that can only be experienced by car. Before setting off you should make sure you are well prepared for the Australian driving experience.
Like most other sparsely populated countries, Australia's car ownership rate is very high, and the vast majority of adult Australians own cars. While public transportation can certainly be used to get around major cities, particularly the cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, frequencies tend to decline sharply once you get out of the city centre and head into the suburbs, so driving yourself would generally save you long waits for public transport. In smaller cities and country towns, public transport tends to be very infrequent or even non-existent, so a car would be necessary just to get around at all.
All road measurements in Australia are metric. Distances are in metres and kilometres, and speed in kilometres per hour.
As a result of its British colonial legacy, Australians drive on the left side of the road in right-hand drive vehicles. Around 70% of Australian cars are automatic transmission. When hiring a car manual transmission (stick-shift) is generally only offered as an option for the cheapest small cars. The gear stick in a manual transmission is operated by the left hand. The arrangement of the pedals is standard worldwide. In most cars, the indicator (turn-signal) stalk will be on the right side of the steering wheel and the windscreen wiper stalk on the left side of the steering wheel.
Driving conditions vary. Most Australians live on or near the eastern and south-east coasts. Roads within and between the cities and towns in these areas are sealed (paved) and well maintained, as are the main highways that join the state and territory capital cities. There are usually plenty of well marked rest areas on major highways, though these are usually very basic and do not always have toilet facilities.
In more remote areas (known as the "Outback") motorists may travel for hundreds of kilometres between towns or road houses without opportunities to refuel, get water, refreshments, or use toilets. In these areas, even on major highways, you will have to plan your trip, including fuel and food stops. Off the major inter-city highways, road conditions can be difficult in remote areas. Many roads are unsealed (gravel or sandy) and often poorly maintained. Some may only be suitable for four-wheel drives and some (including major sealed highways) may not be passable at all in certain seasons or weather conditions.
Motorists need to be self-sufficient and prepared for emergencies when travelling off major highways in remote areas and be aware that outside of major towns, mobile (cell) phone coverage will almost certainly be non-existent. A satellite phone may be a worthwhile and possibly life-saving investment in the most remote, lightly trafficked areas. Permits may also be required to travel through Aboriginal communities in certain remote locations, though these permits can usually be obtained for free.
Buy or rent a car?
A very rough rule of thumb can be:
- Less than 3 weeks: Rent a car.
- Above 3 months: Most cost effective to buy.
Car purchase and motorhome purchase
There is a substantial second hand market in cars and campers for backpackers wishing to do extended road trips around Australia. Take common-sense precautions if purchasing a car. Remember the importance of a thorough mechanical checklist, licensing, registration and insurance. State government services are available free of charge to ensure it is unencumbered by a finance arrangement and that it has not been previously written off as a result of an accident.
Most of the tips for buying a car in Australia are the same as the precautions you would take anywhere. However, in Australia
- You should pay attention to the registration renewal date and the state in which it is registered. Different states have different fees and requirements for vehicle registration and renewal and it can be difficult to renew the registration when out-of-state. You need to register the car in the state you are "resident", and this can make buying a car registered in a different state a bit more difficult. If you are buying and reselling within a year, not having to renew the registration may make life easier for you.
- If you are driving through the outback, the more common and simple your model of car is, the easier it will be to repair and obtain spare parts. The Oodnadatta roadhouse will definitely have tyres for a Toyota Landcruiser, but they are unlikely to have the right tyres for a Volkswagen Passat, let alone any other essential parts. Waiting for parts to be delivered to a remote service station can mean a delay of a week or more to your plans and this is assuming the local mechanic knows how to fix your particular model.
- Perform a PPSR check to ensure there is no money owing on the car you plan to buy. If there is, you will inherit that debt from the previous owner. This check can be done on the internet and costs only a few dollars.
- Travellers Auto-Barn
- Gumtree has a backpackers guide to buying camper vans in Australia. It also lists vehicles for private sale and from dealerships.
- PPSR (Personal Property Securities Register), an Australian Government service that can tell you if there is money owing on a car, if it has been reported written off and/or if it has been reported stolen. It works against the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), usually found in the engine bay. Be aware of third party services as they often provide the exact same information for a higher fee.
- Redbook is an Australian car pricing authority. Find out the market price of any vehicle.
- Cruisin RV Sales is an Australian used motorhomes and campervans dealer
Renting in Australia
- See also: Renting a car
Conditions upon the use of rental vehicles usually exist on travelling into or out of Western Australia and the Northern Territory or on the car ferries to Tasmania, Kangaroo Island and Fraser Island. Rental cars in capital cities usually have unlimited mileage. In small towns they usually only include 100 km a day before a surcharge is applied. Some companies allow travel on any gazetted road, while others forbid travel on a gravel/dirt road unless you hire a four-wheel drive. Always ensure you thoroughly check the vehicle for any damage, including all window glass and the roof panels, and document any found in detail with the renter before leaving the depot.
You must have a licence written in English or an International Driving Permit (IDP) from your home country to drive anywhere in Australia. Check the contract conditions carefully if you are under 25 and also check that your licence class matches the vehicle you wish to rent before you book it.
- Outside of major cities, there are usually daily travel limits before paying a surcharge. Often 100 km or 200 km a day.
- Catching car ferries - particularly the Spirit of Tasmania - is usually prohibited.
- Driving into or out of Western Australia and/or Northern Territory can be restricted. Driving on dirt or gravel or into remote areas can be restricted.
- Driving between dusk and dawn can void your insurance on roads outside of cities.
- Some rental car companies will request that you do a free tourist driving rules quiz before you take the vehicle, or will accompany you on a short drive to check your proficiency behind the wheel.
Campervans and motorhomes
Don't assume hiring a camper will be a cheaper way of seeing Australia. The cost of fuel varies greatly depending on where you are. Fuel costs in outback Australia are much higher than urban areas. Add on the cost of hire, etc., and staying in hostels will often be a cheaper and more comfortable option — but the freedom of having your own four wheels may make up for it.
Prices can change dramatically depending on the travel period. So don't expect to find a cheap campervan rental over Christmas and new year's eve for example. Suppliers also fix prices depending on availability. Like flight tickets, it's always cheaper to book in advance.
Cruisin Motorhomes and Britz tend to operate at the premium end of the campervan market, while the lower end of the market is fiercely competed: larger operators include, Maui, Jucy Rentals, Hippie Camper, Motorhome Republic , GoCheap Campervans and Spaceships.
Campervans vary widely in fitting and quality, with some featuring showers, toilets, kitchens and more, while others have little more than mattresses in the back. They are generally suited for 2–6 travellers depending on the vehicle's size. Check the extra charges very carefully and make sure that you are not paying the same or more for a lesser quality vehicle.
Road rules and safety
Driving is regulated by state government authorities, but there is a fairly consistent set of signage and road rules across Australia. Road rules do vary slightly from state to state, but these differences are, for the most part, fairly minor.
Drivers in Australia require a valid driving licence. Foreign licences in English are considered valid for driving in Australia for visitors for three months. If your licence is not in English, an International Driving Permit which is issued in your home country before arrival in Australia is required.
Australian licences are issued by the respective state and territory governments, and licensing laws vary from state to state. Foreigners staying longer than three months may be required to convert their foreign licence to an Australian one from the state they reside in. Foreigners with licences from Austria, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guernsey, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy, Japan, Jersey, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States may convert their foreign licences to an Australian one after paying an administrative fee. All other foreign licence holders are required to sit for a theory and practical test before they can get an Australian licence.
Australian law requires you to carry your licence with you at all times whenever you are driving. Fines are applicable should you be pulled over and caught driving without carrying your licence.
Use of seat belts is compulsory for drivers and all passengers, and infants must be secured with approved safety capsules and harnesses. Seatbelt laws are strictly enforced, and the onus is on the driver to ensure all passengers are buckled. Penalties apply to the driver of the vehicle, and include demerit points which may lead to a licence suspension. A fine of around $330 per unsecured driver and/or passenger will apply, so car full of people without seat belts can add up quickly.
Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
The blood alcohol limit is 0.05% throughout Australia. Learner and provisional drivers are not permitted to have any alcohol in their system whilst driving.
As a general guideline: For most men, It is 2 standard drinks for the first hour and then 1 drink every hour after that to stay on the 0.05% limit. For most women, it is 1 standard drink for the first hour and then 1 drink every hour after that to stay on the 0.05% limit.
Police conduct random breath tests along both major routes and back streets, both in cities and in the country. A driver does not have to be driving suspiciously or have committed any driving offence to be stopped by police for a random breath test.
If you are caught driving under the influence of alcohol, you will have to make a court appearance. For a first offence, a fine and a period of suspension would normally be imposed if there are no aggravating circumstances. Refusing a random breath test is also an offence and similar penalties apply as for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Random drug testing is also conducted using a mouth swab.
In case of an accident involving injury or death to any person, the police and appropriate emergency response authorities must be contacted. Phone the Australian emergency number 000. The emergency number 112 also works from mobile phone. 112 will work even with an overseas GSM phone without roaming enabled. Emergency numbers from other countries (such as 911) do not work in Australia.
The driver of any vehicle involved in an accident in which a person may have been injured or killed, or where there is serious property damage, is legally required to stop and render assistance. The penalties for leaving an accident scene can be severe (up to 10 years imprisonment), even if you are not at fault. You must contact appropriate emergency authorities.
Persons rendering first aid in good faith in Australia are protected by law and are not at risk of legal action against them. If you can help at an accident scene, always do so.
If your vehicle is blocking the road, or has broken down, ensure you use hazard lights for visibility for oncoming traffic. This is especially important along highways as some road-trains can take upwards of 200m to come to a stop from full speed. Waving down passing traffic for assistance, especially in remote areas, will generally work.
Each state and territory has a separate motoring group which offers roadside breakdown assistance, as well as comprehensive road maps, tourist guides, and useful motoring advice from their numerous branch offices. You need to purchase an annual membership in one of these associations to qualify for roadside assistance, but this can be done when lodging a call for help (with an additional fee). Each state association has reciprocal arrangements with the others, so a single membership will do for all of Australia. If you are a member of the local motoring group in your home country, you might be entitled to free reciprocal assistance, such as maps, from the various motoring groups in Australia. Check with your local motoring group before you leave.
- New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory: National Roads and Motorists' Association (NRMA)
- Victoria: Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV)
- Queensland: Royal Automobile Club of Queensland (RACQ)
- South Australia: Royal Automobile Association (RAA)
- Western Australia: Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia (RAC)
- Tasmania: Royal Automobile Club of Tasmania (RACT)
- Northern Territory: Automobile Association of the Northern Territory (AANT)
A different level of coverage with a higher fee is usually required to ensure useful assistance in remote areas. All these groups are members of the Australian Automobile Association, which has reciprocal agreements with foreign motoring groups such as the New Zealand Automobile Association (NZAA), Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) and American Automobile Association, and some reciprocal coverage might be available if you are a member of the motoring group in your home country.
Speed cameras are used in all states and territories of Australia, with some states using hidden cameras, others preferring highly visible ones. Although enforcement varies somewhat from state to state, speed limits are in general strictly enforced in Australia, and even creeping ever so slightly above the speed limit could earn you a ticket and a hefty fine. The strictest place for speed limit enforcement is Victoria, with mobile speed cameras hidden in unmarked cars, as well as hidden fixed cameras behind highway signage. The official tolerance in Victoria is just two kilometres per hour in excess of the speed limit. Police speed traps, and mobile patrols also regularly pull over cars for exceeding the speed limit. In other states, exceeding the speed limit by 10 km/h or less will usually result in you being sent a fine notice of around $200 (and demerit points if driving on an Australian licence). Exceeding the speed limit by more than 30 km/h can result in a court appearance and possible criminal conviction. Red light and combined red light/speed cameras also operate at many urban intersections and a similar fine will result.
Law enforcement is generally carried out by the state police. If you see a police vehicle pulling up behind you with flashing lights, you are required to pull over and stop as soon as it is safe to do so. The police officer will then typically ask for your licence, which you are required by law to carry with you at all times while driving. If you do not provide any form of photo identification, the police have the right to place you under arrest until they are able to ascertain your identity. Police officers can demand that you undergo a breathalyser test and/or a test for drugs, and refusing either of these tests is a criminal offence that carries fines and a prison sentence with it.
Fine notices are invariably sent to overseas addresses. Rental car companies often charge an administration fee if fines are incurred, and will pass your name on to the debt collection authorities. 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. Fines issued to corporations (such as a rental car company) can be up to five times higher than fines issued to individuals. If you receive a fine via the rental car company that is addressed to the rental card company, do not pay it before you have gone to the website to identify yourself as an individual. The fine will reduce substantially.
Similar to most other Western countries, emergency vehicles have priority over all other traffic when they have their flashing lights and/or sirens on. You are expected to pull over to the left and give way to any such vehicles you may encounter. Failure to do so will not only earn you scorn from other motorists, but is also an offence that is punishable by hefty fines and demerit points.
When passing emergency vehicles on the side of the road with their lights flashing, you must slow down. 25 km/h in South Australia, and 40 km/h in some other states.
Traffic in Australia's major cities can be congested. As in any other place, it pays to avoid driving in or around the Central Business District (CBD) during peak times when everyone is trying to get to or from work, or on freeways on long weekends (bank holiday weekends) when everyone is trying to get out of town. The cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth have fairly reliable public transportation networks, so many locals opt to park at a train station and catch a train to the CBD instead.
The cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Hobart are covered by a relatively good network of urban freeways (in some areas may also be known as motorways or expressways) that allow for rapid driving from the suburbs into the city centre. Adelaide does not have any freeways heading into the city centre, and the freeways that exist only serve the outer suburbs and nearby country towns.
A hazard unique to Melbourne's CBD and the inner suburbs are trams (streetcars). Melbourne is known for its extensive tram network. There are some tram-related rules:
A broken yellow line means cars are permitted to drive in the tram lane. A solid yellow line next to the tram lane indicates that cars are not permitted to drive in the tram lane. There may be a sign overhead that specifies times when cars are not permitted to drive in that lane (for example in peak periods). If there is no sign, then cars are not permitted on the tracks at any time. Tram only zones on roads are called fairways.
Tram passengers have right of way when crossing the road enter or leave a tram. You must stop behind the tram when its hazard lights are flashing and/or the doors of the tram are open, unless the tram is stopped at a fenced stop with barriers and a clear "safety zone" sign.
At some intersections in the Melbourne CBD you can execute a hook turn (pull left in order to turn right) to avoid blocking the tram tracks in the centre of the road. 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.
- Approach the intersection in the left lane, and indicate to turn right.
- On the green light, proceed into the intersection as far left as possible (avoiding the pedestrian crossing). Move forward until you end up perpendicular to traffic waiting at the red light on the cross street (the street you want to turn right into).
- Observe the traffic lights on the cross street. Once green, you turn to your right and proceed as normal. The traffic you were previously perpendicular to will follow as you complete your turn.
Speed limits and school zones
Speed limits are signposted at regular intervals, and can change frequently. A default 50km/h speed limit applies in urban areas where there is no signposted speed. School zones have a 25km/h speed limit in South Australia, and a 40km/h speed limit anywhere else during school hours and these are clearly signposted; usually with flashing electronic variable speed limit signs. In some states, school zones on major highways may be signposted at 60 km/h or 80 km/h. In New South Wales, school buses feature flashing lights when picking up or dropping off children. This is to warn drivers to slow down; however unlike in the United States, you are not required to come to a complete stop. It is illegal to exceed 40 km/h when passing a school bus in New South Wales with its lights flashing.
It is illegal to turn left on a red traffic signal unless a posted sign specifically permits it. With the exception of the state of Victoria, it is illegal to do a U-turn at a traffic signal in Australia, unless there is a sign explicitly permitting it. In Victoria a U-turn is permitted at any intersection with or without signals, unless signage specifically prohibits this.
Overtaking is permitted to the right hand side only, unless you are driving on a multi-lane road and the other vehicle can be safely overtaken in a marked lane to the left of that vehicle. If the signposted speed is above 80km/h it is illegal for a car to remain in the right hand lane on a road except whilst overtaking another vehicle. When the overtaking manoeuvre is completed drivers should move back into the left lane as soon as it is safe to do so. Where no such lanes are marked drivers must only overtake on the right hand side of the other vehicle unless the other vehicle is stationary turning to the right or signalling an intention to do so. Whilst overtaking you must not cross over any continuous (unbroken) centre line, continuous double lines or where the double centreline nearest to you is unbroken.
Many rural two lane highways feature an occasional third lane for safe overtaking. A yellow diamond sign will indicate with black arrows which direction has priority for overtaking in the middle lane. The single opposing lane may also use the middle lane for overtaking, as long as both oncoming lanes are clear and the centre line closest to the opposing lane is broken.
In mountainous areas of Australia, there are occasionally bays to the side of the road which are to be pulled into by the slower vehicle to allow traffic to pass.
On mountain roads and other roads where overtaking opportunities are rare, it is greatly appreciated if you pull over to allow faster traffic to pass.
Parking in major cities can be difficult and expensive, especially in the CBD and around tourist areas, such as beaches. Even smaller towns may have parking hassles on popular market days and for events.
Commercial parking lot charges are common in capital cities centres, and operate on an hourly basis on weekdays, and often charging a flat fee on weekends or evenings. These can be very expensive in the CBD area.
Cities often have council operated on-street parking that involves a fee payable. There is either a meter that corresponds to the spot in which you have parked, or a ticket machine to buy a ticket from. These spots will have a sign indicating the maximum amount of time you can park there (paying the appropriate fee), and at what times the fee operates. Feeding meters (staying longer than the posted time by returning to the meter or ticket machine, and inserting more money or buying another ticket) is illegal and will result in the same fine as not paying the fee.
Parking is policed sporadically, with some areas regularly patrolled and others rarely, but you are never entirely safe parking illegally. Parking is more strictly enforced in the built-up city areas. Fines are of the order of $100.
Areas signposted as clearways prohibit parking during peak times. Parked cars will often be towed, adding a $100 recovery charge, and considerable hassle.
Areas marked as no stopping, no standing, bus zones or taxi zones are illegal to stop in, even to pick up and drop off. Areas marked as no parking zones are those in which you may pick up and drop off, but you can't leave your car or turn off your car.
If you are willing to park a few blocks away and walk, it is often possible to find free on-street parking in residential areas near some attractions.
Major capitals usually have good public transport within the CBD itself, and this is an alternative to driving between CBD locations once parked.
Some motorways, bridges, and tunnels in major cities require payment of tolls. On some roads, a cash payment can be made at tollbooths on the road, however increasingly there is a trend to electronic collection of tolls via transponders fitted inside vehicles. Some toll roads do not allow for cash payment at all. If you drive on such a road without a transponder, a photo is taken of your vehicle's number plate, and you have a limited time (between 24 and 72 hours, depending upon the road) to phone a number or visit a website and arrange credit card payment (plus an additional processing fee) before a fine is issued. Toll roads are clearly signposted and opportunities to exit are clearly delineated before reaching the first tolling point.
Avoiding toll roads may save you a few dollars, but you may pay in extra travel time, fuel cost, and navigation difficulties, particularly during peak travel times. If hiring a car, ask the agency for advice on toll roads. A single transponder can be used on any toll road in Australia, regardless of which company issued the transponder and which company operates the toll road you wish to travel on. There is no extra charge for travelling on another company's toll road.
Notably, Western Australia and South Australia are completely devoid of toll roads.
If you encounter a roundabout and are from a country that doesn't have many of them, like the United States of America, here's a quick guide:
Give way. Give way to vehicles already on the roundabout: enter the intersection only when there is no risk of collision with a car on the roundabout coming from your right. On most roundabouts, this effectively means that you give way to cars coming from your right, cars coming from the opposite direction and turning right, and cars on your left going all the way around the roundabout.
Indicate. When two roads cross at a small roundabout, indicate left to go left, right to go 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.
Select your lane. On multiple lane roundabouts arrows will usually be on the road indicating which lane you should choose to go which direction. Otherwise, just take the left lane to go left, right lane to go right, and either lane to go straight. Bicycles may stay in the left lane and go right, but if they choose to do this, they must give way to vehicles in the right lane exiting.
Outside of major cities and the main freeway between Sydney and Melbourne, 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 because the speeds are freeway-like (speed limits vary between 100 km/h and 130 km/h) but the conditions are more dangerous than freeways because there is no barrier or division from oncoming traffic.
Some rural highways have regular overtaking lanes but on others you will need to pass slower traffic by pulling into the lane on the opposite side of the road, the one used by the oncoming traffic. Obviously, this should be done when there is no oncoming traffic present or approaching. It should only be attempted when you have plenty of visibility, and it should be done as quickly as possible. Do not ever overtake by pulling off the road to the left as Australian drivers won't anticipate this even if the shoulder is paved - it is also illegal.
While illegal it is common for locals to exceed the speed limit to overtake slower traffic to ensure they do not "run out of road", use common sense.
Some less major rural roads and outback roads are unsealed gravel roads. These are harder to drive on at high speeds and you will have to contend with the odd stone being thrown up. Windscreen damage is not unusual. Some rental car companies do not allow their cars to be taken off sealed roads, even if the unsealed road is an official minor road, others increase the excess or won't cover stone damage. Many gravel roads in the south are in good condition and experienced drivers tend to drive on them as fast as they would on the sealed roads. When on gravel it is essential to slow down well before a corner or you risk skidding as you turn. Loose or drifting gravel also poses a hazard as your tyres may lose traction as the gravel rolls or shifts under the tyres. If you feel you are losing control on gravel, slow down and try to avoid braking or turning sharply. Use your gears to slow down when you can. Roads in the northern tropics are often sandy, rocky or corrugated.
When you are driving on Australia's open roads you may see dead animals on the side of the road. The fact is, quickly swerving or braking heavily could cause a much more serious accident. Sundown and sunrise are times to be on the alert through the Australian bush, as well as regions where you will encounter water sources like rivers and reservoirs, or the plains surrounding mountain ranges.
If you come across multiple tyre marks on the road, this could suggest that animals regularly use this part of the road as a crossing, so just be a little more aware, and also, using the high beam head lights at night, will make it harder for an animal to find an appropriate escape route, so practice flicking them off for animals as well as for on coming traffic.
Slow down when approaching cattle grids (trenches in the ground with metal poles across) as these may be bent, broken or deeply potholed on the approaches. Severe tyre damage or a broken spring can result from speeding over these grids. Leave gates shut or open as you have found them.
Do not enter creek or gully crossings without first checking for depth, dips and holes and finding the shallowest path. Water crossings in northern Australia (Far North Queensland, Kimberley, Top End) are often inhabited by crocodiles so it is not advisable to walk these rivers. Vehicles are washed away more easily than most people realise.
Mobile (cell) phone coverage will probably be highly intermittent even on relatively major highways unless you are near a population centre. Check the coverage of the network you are using, Telstra tends to have the best rural network coverage, so it is also more expensive than the other operators. If you can budget for it, a mobile phone car kit with an external antenna can increase your range. Again, consult the coverage charts to see where an external antenna may help. You can check the Telstra Mobile coverage maps for the roads you are travelling in advance.
Tune in to local radio during Bushfire season or just for updates on the local situation. A tone of whirring alarm is played before any emergency warnings on local and even rural commercial radio, listen out for these for advice, especially if travelling during summer, so you don't end up travelling through bushfires.
Some mountain and tableland areas of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania are noted for having very frosty nights that may cause diesel to solidify in vehicles causing the engine to stop or run abnormally. Usually vehicles will run normally without intervention when the morning warms.
There are no bridges connecting Tasmania with the Australian mainland; the only way across the strait is by car ferry.
Outside of major centres, do not assume that fuel will be available late at night, in the early morning, or in some cases even on a Sunday. Even on some major regional roads, roadhouses may be closed late at night. If you are planning a long drive overnight, make sure you know where and when you are going to get fuel.
Maximum speeds vary between states and are normally signposted.
The default open road speed limit varies between states in Australia. Those default limits should always be observed in rural and regional areas where there is no signposted speed limit shown and the area has no street lights and is away from townships or built-up areas. It is generally best to assume that the default limit is 50km/h in built-up areas, and 100km/h on the open road unless you are sure a higher limit is applicable.
When travelling on un-paved or gravel roads the posted limit may not be appropriate to the prevailing conditions. You should never presume the road is safe to travel at the posted speed limit; the actual safe speeds of travel on unsealed roads may vary tremendously within a short space of both time and distance due to current weather and/or road conditions. For this reason many gravel and dirt roads in Australia do not have speed limit signs posted lest they should mislead road users into believing that the posted speed is either achievable or safe. As an example of this, in Tasmania they do not normally install advisory speed signs on unsealed roads where travel speeds greater than 35 km/h can be achieved.
In the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland the default speed limit on an open road is 100 km/h. In New South Wales the posted speed limit is normally 110 km/h on motorways (freeways/tollways) in non-built up areas, high quality rural (divided) roads and (undivided) rural roads with low traffic volume in the western part of the state, other parts of the state are a default maximum speed of 100 km/h unless indicated otherwise. In South Australia the default speed limit is 100 km/h, though many major rural roads and state highways are posted at 110 km/h. In the Northern Territory the default speed limit is 110 km/h, with speed limits of up to 130 km/h on major highways away from urban areas. In Western Australia the default speed limit for open areas is 110 km/h with a limit for freeways of 100 km/h unless zoned otherwise.
The dividing markings on the road indicate if overtaking is legal. A broken dividing line indicates that you may move to the other side if the road to overtake if it is clear. A solid or double solid dividing line indicates that no overtaking is allowed and you may only move over to the other side to avoid an obstruction. A broken line next to a solid line means that you may move to the other side of the road to overtake if you are driving on the side of the broken line but not if you're driving on the side of the solid line.
A centre road marking is often indistinguishable from a lane dividing marking. It can be sometimes impossible to tell if you are on a two lane one-way road, or a two way road. This can be a hazard when divided roads change to single carriageway roads, and you have to remember what type of road you are on. If unsure, just keep to the left.
Distances can be a problem for the unprepared
Australia is a very big country, and while driving is a fun and interesting way to get around, you have to remember that it is a long long way to get from point A to point B. Taking the capital cities as an example, it is easy to drive from Melbourne to Adelaide in a day (8 hr), or Canberra to Sydney (3 hr) but driving from Melbourne to Sydney is a good 10 hr solid driving. If you want to drive to Perth from Melbourne, you must use the Eyre Highway and cross the Nullarbor Plain, which means driving for approximately 3,500 km, including 2,000 km on a virtually dead straight, totally flat road with only a few roadhouses, each a hundred kilometres apart. You will have to spend at least one night on the road, so book in advance. The general advice is to have a rest every two hours 'Stop, Revive, Survive'. Always expect the unexpected and drive to the conditions. You should also be wary of your fuel supplies and always allow a generous reserve for unexpected contingencies. A good rule of thumb is to carry sufficient fuel to be able to turn around and return to the place you were last able to secure adequate provisions. Distances between fuel supplies can be extreme, even on main roads and conditions can change without warning. Check that you have a map indicating fuel outlets, petrol stations (gas stations) and local fuel depots providing either petrol or diesel fuel. Outback communities do not always have fuel supplies or they may be limited. LPG (liquid petroleum gas) may be un-available in some areas and in remote areas it is very unlikely to be found.
There is little traffic on back roads, but what there is will consist of a fair proportion of road trains (semi-trailers towing up to three trailers). They will not necessarily be able to quickly reduce their speed, as their effective stopping distance is often far too great. Do not expect a road train to be able to take rapid evasive action to avoid your vehicle; even if you have a technical right of way, never pull out in front of a heavy vehicle. Slow down rapidly or stop without ensuring you have left a clear path for the larger and much heavier vehicle to proceed unhindered.
In years past Australian motorists travelling on outback and isolated roads had a tradition of stopping or slowing to enquire as to another motorists welfare or assist if they were in difficulties. This sort of behaviour is declining and motorists now tend to travel at much greater speeds and with much lesser regard for the plight of others. You should always ensure you have adequate skills, resources and knowledge to deal with the prevailing situation on your own. If you do experience difficulties stay with your vehicle, do not wander off or set off cross country to summon assistance.
As an example, here are the distances from one state capital to another:
|Sydney–Melbourne||Hume Motorway (M31) through Albury-Wodonga||860 km|
|Princes Highway (M1/A1) through Batemans Bay||1,043 km|
|Sydney–Brisbane||Pacific Highway (M1/A1) through Coffs Harbour||964 km|
|New England Highway (A43/A15) through Tamworth and Armidale||1,018 km|
|Sydney–Adelaide||Hume and Sturt Highways (National Highways 31 and 20) through Wagga Wagga and Mildura||1,410 km|
|Mitchell and Barrier Highways (National Highway 32) through Dubbo and Broken Hill||1,659 km|
|Melbourne–Brisbane||Newell Highway (National Highways 31, 39, 42 and 15) through Dubbo||1,681 km|
|Melbourne–Adelaide||Western and Dukes Highways (National Highways 8 and 1) through Horsham, Victoria||724 km|
|Princes Highway (National Highway 1) through Mt Gambier||912 km|
|Brisbane–Adelaide||Newell, Oxley and Mitchell Highways (National Highways 15, 42, 39, 34 and 32) through Moree and Broken Hill||2,031 km|
|Stuart Highway (National Highways 87 and 1) through Alice Springs||3,019 km|
|Adelaide–Perth||Eyre and Great Eastern Highways (National Highways 1 and 94) through Ceduna and Norseman||2,695 km|
|Perth–Darwin||Brand, North-West Coastal, Great Northern, Victoria and Stuart Highways (National Highway 1) through Roebourne and Katherine||4,166 km|
|Sydney–Perth||Hume, Sturt, Eyre and Great Eastern Highways (National Highways 31, 20, 1 and 94) through Wagga Wagga, Mildura, Port Augusta, Ceduna and Norseman||3,942 km|
Australia is the land of kangaroos, emus, wombats, feral camels, horses, rabbits and cattle. Sometimes these animals wander onto roadways. Kangaroos in particular will leap across roadways directly in front of vehicles, and are more likely to hop along the roadway than hop off it. Emus also run across roads and have no sense of how to get out of the way of a car. Off the main highways many roads run adjacent to farms that are unfenced, and stock on the road are common. Many animals caught in headlights come to a complete halt, but a short blast on the car horn may help startle them into moving off the road. Briefly switching off your headlights may also encourage them to move on. Most animal collisions occur at dusk, at dawn, or at night when some animals are more active but less visible.
Drive carefully when you spot these big animals and be ready to use your brakes. Swerving to avoid an animal can also lead to fatalities, so if the choice is between hitting the animal or potentially losing control of the vehicle, hit the animal.
Most car hire firms impose a curfew on driving after sunset in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Often a collision with an animal has a higher excess (deductible) than other collisions. Away from cities and main highways try to be at your destination before nightfall. If forced to travel at night, keep your speed down.
Many vehicles in the bush have a "bull bar", a rigid steel or aluminium frame, fitted in front of the radiator. These are to protect passengers and the vehicle in the event of a collision with an animal. If you do hit a native animal, stop if it is safe to do so. There are trained wildlife rescue groups in each state who care for injured and orphaned animals. If such an incident occurs endeavour to remove any dead or injured animal from the road if it is safe to do so and within your physical capabilities.
- NSW wildlife rescue, toll-free: 1300 094 737. WIRES
- Victorian wildlife rescue, toll-free: 1300 094 535.
During bushfire season (December - March) tune in to ABC Local Radio while travelling through rural Australia. You can find a list of stations here, you will also see signs along your route (especially when entering towns) with radio frequencies of FM and AM stations in that area.
Fires are extremely dangerous, but easily avoidable. Never drive into fire or through fire. It can and will cover highways including wide/major ones.
During radio broadcast, a tone of "whirring alarm" will play before any emergency announcements and updates regarding any active emergencies in your area to help you listen in. Do not be alarmed: while the radio is "local", it can cover stretches as far as 500 km.
Police can and do setup roadblocks and have the right to prevent people from entering high risk zones. This will only happen if you are attempting to enter an area where fire is likely to affect within hours. Many Australians have been prevented from going back to their homes to collect belongings when the fire is actively threatening their homes.
If you are driving in the outback, be prepared for anything. Some roads have little traffic, so there may be a substantial amount of time before anyone will pass should you break down. There are few towns and petrol stations etc, so motorists need to make sure that they carry adequate and surplus amounts of food, water and fuel. The interior of Australia is a true desert, so if your vehicle has no air conditioning, you could suffer from common day time temperatures of 45°C (113°F) and past 50°C (122°F) on really hot days. Night time temperatures can drop to freezing. Even if you are travelling on well travelled outback roads, a small diversion off the main road to see an attraction may see traffic volumes reduce significantly.
Depending upon the estimated time of travel and the remoteness of the roads, it is wise to take at least 10 litres of drinking water per person per day of travel, and an additional 3-5 days of extra drinking water per person, in case of breakdown. Do not have all of your water in one container at any time. Shade material and very thick warm blankets are also important survival tools. A box of matches or cigarette lighter should always be carried when intending to travel into isolated areas. A fire can provide warmth and can be very helpful in attracting attention if lost or stranded.
Do not expect your mobile (cell) phone to work if you are in the outback. Large areas of the country do not have service. If you're travelling to remote areas, take a satellite phone or a PLB)
Outback roads vary in quality and type. A freshly graded and wide gravel road can make for relatively easy driving. The same road several months later with rutting, corrugations and washed out creek crossings can be a nightmare for a 2-wheel-drive vehicle. The road reports will usually mention where there is rutting, corrugation, and washouts. Rutting is where the wheels of vehicles have worn away the road surface, meaning than low clearance vehicles can hit the bottom of the cars on the central raised section of the road. Corrugation is common on gravel roads that aren't freshly graded. Washouts occur when creek crossings see water flows since the road was last graded. The road surface is replaced by pebbles, sand and is uneven for the duration of the creek bed. Some outback roads are gravel and graded regularly. Others are unimproved dirt roads, where just a grader has been through, and the road base can be sand. It can be very difficult to tell the difference just by looking at a map. Some roads require a heavy duty 4wd (four-wheel-drive) vehicle for safe passage. One that is especially prepared for the trip with suitable equipment depending on the length, isolation, and roughness of the track. Advanced planning is required for such trips; you cannot just hire a passenger sedan and go. An SUV or soft road 4wd vehicle is not always suitable for roads marked as requiring a 4wd. Some outback road conditions may seriously damage anything other than a highly robust heavy duty vehicle to the extent it may become undrivable; the occupants may then be exposed to some considerable inconvenience and risk.
It is a good idea to advise a person you know and trust of your route and advise them to alert authorities if you do not contact them within a reasonable amount of time after your scheduled arrival at your destination. Carrying a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or satellite phone should be considered when travelling in remote areas, especially where you may not be able to make contact for several days. Police will not automatically start looking for you if you don't report in. Make sure you get one with a GPS built in. These can be borrowed from some local police stations, such as those in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. If you want to hire one, sort it out before you leave a major city, as you won't find hire places in small towns. Expect to pay around $100 to hire for a week, or $700 to buy one. Don't expect an immediate rescue even if you trigger a PLB.
Temperatures can be extremely hot during the day, and can drop drastically once night falls. Always go to the local police station when you are going off the sealed (paved) highway, and tell them where you are going and how long you expect to take. This will help them to look for you if they get reports you are missing. Never ever leave your car when it breaks down in the middle of nowhere. In case of a long wait, it gives you shelter and it is a lot easier to spot a vehicle than a person walking in the bush. Also, a person uses about four times as much water when walking, and Australia is a dry country.
Beware of potholes and corrugations on gravel roads. Potholes are not always visible on sandy roads or those with a lot of bulldust. The road surface might seem quite even, but hidden potholes hit with sufficient speed can overturn a car. Corrugations are wavelike formations that form on a road surface when enough cars have been driven over it. At low speeds the car will be shaken to a degree that's almost unbearable. At higher speeds there is a risk of losing control of the vehicles steering and direction. In most cases, a speed of 50-60 km/h is a happy medium; not too slow and not too fast. Do not try to swerve around lizards or other small creatures as the car is likely to become very unstable with a high chance of crashing.
Dust can also be a problem on unpaved roads, and heavy vehicles travelling at high speed often leave a trail of dust and small stones behind them, severely impairing visibility in vehicles behind them. As a precaution, do not tailgate. The significantly reduced visibility in dust storms caused by vehicles in front can have deadly consequences and any stones thrown up will become high speed projectiles.
Some two-way paved roads have only one lane paved, right down the middle. When approaching another car both of you are expected to move left off the bitumen onto the dirt at the side of the road, pass, and then move back onto the black. Be wary immediately after passing, as the other car will have stirred up a huge dust cloud which will lower visibility for several seconds.
Bulldust is a fine talcum powder-like dust that is very common on outback Australian tracks. Patches of bulldust look like smooth hard patches but in fact it is usually a fine covering of dust over a deep hole. Driving through bulldust at speed is very dangerous and must be avoided. It can cause damage if sucked into engines too, so in very dusty areas you should have a filter on your air intake and check it regularly.
Pay particular attention to the weather forecasts in outback areas and be prepared to stay put for a while if the weather sets in. Unsealed outback roads, especially, can be closed with little notice in the wet, isolating communities, at any time of year. Creek crossings are very common on outback roads, with dry creek beds. These creeks rise quickly after rain and can become impassable for several days. In the rain bulldust turns into a clay, which fills your wheel rims and can bring a two-wheel drive or a motorcycle to a grinding halt. Scraping out the bulldust and a bit of a push can sometimes get you on your way again, but it can be very tough going.
Respect road closures, even if the road or track appears traffic-able. The road may have been closed due to being damaged or impassable much further down the road. If you proceed you may end up having to turn back or become stranded at a remote location. Of course if you should experience difficulties then the chances of anyone passing by and rendering assistance are somewhat reduced if the road has been closed. Just find as comfortable a place as possible and wait for the conditions to improve and for the road to re-open, or seek an alternative route if available. Roads are sometimes closed to prevent them becoming seriously damaged by vehicles transiting them when the surface is too soft or slippery after rain. Do not cause damage to a road by continuing your journey and transiting a road or track when it has been closed, especially if your vehicles wheels are leaving furrows or ruts. No one will be impressed that you made it through, rather you may attract the wrath and considerable disdain of other road users and possibly the local authorities for cutting up the road whilst it was too soft for traffic. Many roads and tracks in the outback are public thoroughfares passing over private property, parks, reserves or leasehold pastoral land; you may be asked to contribute to the costs of grading or repairing the road if you damage it due to reckless behaviour.
If you encounter a gate on a public road or thoroughfare in the outback it may have a sign on it (or nearby) advising of the roads entrance conditions and gate closure requirements. The Dingo Fence or Dog Fence is a notable example of such formal gating. This fence is one of the longest structures in the world and is the world's longest fence. It stretches 5,614 km (3,488 mi) from Jimbour on the Darling Downs near Dalby in Queensland through thousands of kilometres of inland Australia finally ending west of Eyre peninsula on cliffs of the Nullarbor Plain near Nundroo 160 km west of Ceduna and 347 km east of the South Australian-West Australian border. Any gate on this fence must be closed at all times other than when a vehicle is actually passing through the gate. Other gates range from very formal solid constructions down to humble bush gates using many different methods of closure. The rule with these gates is to always leave it as you found it. If it is open leave it open, if it is closed then you must close it again and ensure that it is done properly. Pay very careful attention when you first open the gate to ensure that you fully understand how to close it again. If you are travelling close behind another vehicle they may open the gate and then drive on, leaving you to close the gate. Pay careful attention to any such situation to ensure there is no confusion as to the status of the gate upon arrival (open or shut) and who is closing it, do not just drive off unless you can see the gate is being properly managed by others, traditionally the onus is upon the last one through to close the gate; however if you opened it you still have the ultimate responsibility to ensure that it is left as you found it including being correctly fastened. Heavy grazing stock losses or intrusion of feral animals may arise from incorrect gate management by travellers. In some cases penalties may be applied for not following correct procedures where closure is mandated.
Road trains are a special hazard on Australian roads. These leviathans can reach lengths of up to 55 m, with up to four trailers, so treat them with care and respect.
Oncoming road trains should be given all the space they need. On asphalt roads, you should slow down and drive partly on the road shoulder if possible.
A road train coming up behind you should often be allowed to pass as well. When they overtake you at high speeds, they will often create a "vortex" which sucks you towards them. Therefore, be alert and stay in control of the vehicle at all times. In many cases overtaking a road train is not a good idea. If you have to do it, be sure to choose a nice long stretch of straight road where you can make sure that there's no oncoming traffic for about 2 km. On gravel roads there's only one piece of advice: don't.
When behind a truck on a long stretch of road, many truck drivers will indicate to you that there is no traffic ahead and therefore safe to overtake by flicking the right indicator light on once or twice. Treat this signal with caution as sometimes there is not enough space between you and the next oncoming car. Use your common sense. If you are equipped with a CB radio, you may be able to talk to the truckie and confirm the condition of the road ahead for safe overtaking. Confirm the truck licence plate with the driver to make sure you are talking to the truck in front of you.
Once you are outside the metropolitan areas, traffic tends to thin out and driving becomes relatively boring. The long straight stretches, the slowly changing scenery, and the fine weather on many through routes can be a recipe for drowsiness. Make sure you stop every couple of hours and, if possible, change drivers. On some routes local service clubs provide coffee and there are billboards with road safety advice. These are there for a reason. People die on those routes from drivers falling asleep.
When you arrive in Australia allow for "jet lag". Do not leave your car heater or air-conditioner switched to "recycle" as this can make you drowsy and watch for other signs of fatigue (blurred vision, yawning). On summer evenings, you can usually leave the windows open, for the fresh air and smell of the bush.
In the north of Australia, the period from November (sometimes even October) to March is considered the Wet Season. Many remote communities (and even some major towns on the Queensland coast) are completely isolated during the Wet, unless they have a landing strip for light aircraft. Rivers that are dry at other times of the year can overflow their banks due to extremely high rainfall.
Sometimes, bridges are washed out, or dirt roads are turned into muddy quagmires. Water levels can rise quickly from nothing to flooding. Notably, the Bruce Highway, which is the main road from Brisbane up through the Queensland coast to Cairns, is notorious for being cut for days at a time in many areas, mostly near Innisfail and Tully, which are both just south of Cairns.
Travellers intending to drive around the North should contact local authorities beforehand as they will know the most about local conditions. They will also be the poor sods called out to rescue you if you get stuck, so be polite. In Queensland, it is possible to go from Cairns to Cooktown via Mareeba or Mossman using an inland route, which is fully sealed and suitable for normal cars. If you intend to take the coastal route (starting just north of Cape Tribulation), you can't do it whenever it is raining, unless you have a serious four-wheel drive, preferably equipped with a snorkel.
If travelling around the north on unsealed (unpaved) roads, a powerful four-wheel drive vehicle is a must. Being bogged in the middle of the Outback can be fatal if one is not properly prepared.