Owing to its sparse population, New Zealand is a very car dependent country, with 92% of New Zealand households owning at least one car. While public transport is usable in the cities of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and there is a network of long distance coach services and backpacker buses, a car is often preferred to get around anywhere else.
The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) is the government agency responsible for road transport and driving in New Zealand, such as motor vehicle registration, driver licensing, road rules, etc. Some older publications may refer its predecessors, the Land Transport Safety Authority (LTSA) or Land Transport New Zealand (LTNZ).
The New Zealand Automobile Association (AA) is the main motoring group in New Zealand. Travellers on an extended road trip might want to consider obtaining a membership with them, as their roadside assistance is often valuable in case you get stranded. The AA also has reciprocal agreements with many foreign motoring groups, and may provide some services to foreigners who are members of their local motoring group.
The New Zealand Road Code and self-test questions are available online from the NZTA, or can be purchased from any AA office and from most book stores. On-line lessons and resources for people intending to drive in New Zealand (especially oriented towards rental cars or rental campervans or RVs) are available free from DrivingTests.co.nz.
Speed and distance in New Zealand are shown in metric units. For those used to imperial units, it is easy to miscalculate the time needed for travel.
As New Zealand roads are narrower than foreigners are used to and covered with hilly terrain, journey times are often longer than expected. Therefore there are more chances of a crash when you are tired. Take plenty of rest before a long drive and take a break after every two hours of driving as well.
The following distances and travel times listed below are the absolute minimum required, using the most direct route with typical traffic and only technical stops (fuel, food, toilets, etc.) Add extra time for detours, sightseeing, and when driving campervans:
8 hr 30 min
|Bay of Islands||230 km
3 hr 15 min
11 hr 30 min
1 hr 45 min
5 hr 30 hrs
4 hr 15 min
8 hr 30 min
- Wellington – Picton via Cook Strait Ferry – 100 km, 3 hr 30 min plus check-in time
5 hr 30 min
6 hr 30 min
|Milford Sound||760 km
15 hr 30 min
4 hr 30 hrs
6 hr 00 hrs
5 hr 30 min
6 hr 30 min
As New Zealand drives on the left, all vehicles are right-hand drive. Cars are equally likely to have manual (stick-shift) and automatic transmissions; if you can't drive a manual, make sure to request an automatic vehicle when booking a rental car.
Unlike in the UK and Ireland, the indicator lever is typically on the right-hand side of the steering wheel and the wiper lever on the left-hand side.
The majority of petrol (gasoline) cars in New Zealand use "regular" 91 octane (green nozzle). Some European and high-end models use "premium" 95 octane (red nozzle, except at BP stations where they are yellow). Petrol stations in major towns and cities may offer 98 octane or E10 fuel instead of 95 octane. Diesel fuel has a black nozzle. Petrol prices vary by region: $1.90-2.15/L for regular unleaded petrol, and $1.30-1.45 for diesel as of Feb 2019. You can often find discounts of up 6¢/L, e.g. you get a voucher for Z petrol stations by buying anything at Pak'n Save supermarkets, or at Mobil stations by getting a Smiles rewards card.
New Zealand has a small but growing fleet of electric vehicles. As of June 2018, there were 8,700 pure electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles registered in New Zealand, with just under half of them being Nissan Leafs. There is a rapidly expanding network of fast charging stations across the country, although publicly available slow charging stations are still rare. New Zealand is standardising its EV chargers to have both a Type 2 Combo and a CHAdeMO tethered cable for DC charging, and Type 2 socket (bring your own cable) for AC charging. There are a number of Type 1 and Type 1 Combo charges still around, but these are being phased out.
The minimum age to obtain a car or motorcycle driving licence in New Zealand is 16 years, although it takes a minimum of 18 months and two practical driving tests before someone can drive unrestricted. You can legally drive for up to 12 months if you have a current driving licence from your home country provided it is in English, or you have an approved English translation such as an International Driving Permit (IDP) to accompany it. All conditions on your overseas licence apply in New Zealand, e.g. automatic transmission only or needing to wear corrective lenses. If your licence has been suspended in your home country, you cannot drive in New Zealand until the suspension ends. You must carry your licence at all times when driving.
There are six classes of driver licence in New Zealand, although only two classes matter to most visitors:
- A Class 1 "car" licence, which allows you to drive a car or light vehicle and tow a light trailer as long as the combined weight of the vehicle and any trailer is less than 6 tonnes. You can ride a moped on a Class 1 licence, but not a motorcycle.
- A Class 6 "motorcycle" licence, which allows you to ride a motorcycle or moped. You can't drive a car or other vehicle on a Class 6 licence.
Classes 2 through 5 are for varying degrees of heavy vehicles. There are also licence endorsements to drive specific vehicles or in specific roles; for example, an F endorsement allows you to drive a forklift on public roads, while a P endorsement allows you to carry passengers for hire or reward (public bus, taxi, shuttle, Uber, etc.).
Foreigners in New Zealand for more than a year are required to obtain a New Zealand driver licence from the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA). Foreigners from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States may convert their car and motorcycle licence to a New Zealand one after paying an administrative fee. All other foreigners are required to sit for and pass theory and practical tests before they are granted a New Zealand licence.
Due to its British colonial history, like their Australian neighbours, New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road in right-hand drive cars. If you are used to driving on the right, you need to concentrate at all times. Take particular care when pulling out from lay-bys and driveways or when you are tired. It is very easy to have a lapse of concentration and to revert to habit. Such lapses have caused a number of fatal head-on accidents in New Zealand. Many inter-city roads lack median barriers, so there is nothing to force the driver to stay on the correct side of the road.
110 km/h limits
New speed limit rules introduced in August 2017 allowed 110 km/h to be imposed on selected motorways and expressways. As of 11 December 2017, the following roads have 110 km/h limits:
Unless specifically signposted higher, the maximum speed limit for cars and light vehicles in New Zealand is 100 km/h. Towing vehicles and heavy vehicles (over 3.5 tonnes) are limited to 90 km/h and school buses are limited to 80 km/h, even if the posted speed limit is higher. Signage follows the European model of a number inside a red ring.
A small allowance is made for inaccurate speedometers, so many drivers travel at 100–104 km/h on the open road. Officially though, the Police have a no-tolerance policy and can issue tickets for any speed over the limit. Police will fine you for only going 5 km/h over the speed limit if you are caught speeding near a school, and during holiday periods and long weekends. Further, police occasionally issue fines (infringement notices) for driving at or below the sign-posted speed limits when there is no need to and also where a vehicle's speed is excessive for the driving conditions (e.g. in crowded streets in town centres or on icy roads). If you are driving a vehicle subject to a lower maximum speed limit, the penalty scale starts at that limit and not the speed limit; being caught for travelling at 110 km/h in a 100 km/h zone towing a trailer (max. 90 km/h), the penalty will be for exceeding the speed limit by 20 km/h (a $120 fine), not 10 km/h (a $30 fine).
Travelling more than 40 km/h over a posted speed limit is considered careless driving and will result in arrest, suspension of driver's licence and possible impounding of the vehicle if caught by police. Failing to stop for Police when directed (e.g. flashing red and blue lights/siren) may also result in an arrest, as Police will pursue a fleeing vehicle unless doing so would endanger other road users.
The police operate a dedicated Highway Patrol who have the responsibility of enforcing traffic laws and assist at accidents. Unmarked (or mufti) patrol vehicles are also used. However, all Police officers are expected to stop offending motorists if traffic offending is observed. However, it is rare for (non-Highway Patrol) Police officers to concentrate on offences other than speeding. Police officers are required to ensure a steady flow of traffic by ensuring overly slow drivers pull over and let traffic past; however, this behaviour is rarely observed.
Speed cameras operate from the back of unmarked cars and vans and from camera boxes in fixed positions. Police also use hand-held laser speed guns and may operate hidden speed cameras. An innocent looking parked van or car or that cream or silver box on a pole at the side of the road may or may not contain a camera – best to assume that it does. The official policy is to target those areas with disproportionately high accident statistics.
Take extra care at observing speed limits as you pass through small towns. There are often speed cameras just past where the speed limit drops to 50 km/h, such as the fixed speed cameras entering Bulls from the south as with Palmerston North.
Also be sure to obey temporary speed restrictions put in place for road works and special events, even when there is no evidence of work actually in progress. When resealing has taken place, the limit is often left in place for a couple of weeks until loose stones have disappeared or been swept. Being caught driving at more than 80 km/h in a temporary 30 km/h zone will lead to automatic loss of driving licence plus a heavy fine. Do not be surprised if long lengths of highway have 30 km/h restrictions despite there not being any sign of road works or workmen; this is notoriously commonplace to drivers' frustration.
The speed limit passing a school bus that has stopped for passengers is 20 km/h from either direction. This means you must slow to 20 km/h even if the school bus is on the opposite side of the road. Most school buses have a yellow and black sign saying "SCHOOL" on the front and back, but there are no other warning signs or marking different from any other bus on the road; school buses lack distinctive colouring and are never painted yellow (unless that's the colour scheme of the bus company). There are a lot of school buses on rural roads 7-9AM and 3-5PM on any school day so it pays to take care.
Visitors from the United States and Canada should be aware that left turns on red are illegal throughout New Zealand.
Drinking and driving
New Zealand Police strictly enforce alcohol limits for drivers: 0.05 BAC (i.e. 50mg per 100mL of blood) for drivers 20yr and over, and 0.00 BAC (zero) for drivers under 20. Police often set up checkpoints, sometimes around a whole city centre, and even on motorway on-ramps. Police also station an officer or two on adjacent side roads to catch any driver trying to avoid the checkpoint.
Any and every traffic stop is also an opportunity for testing for drink-driving. Police use breath screening devices in which the driver talks or blows into to detect drivers who have been drinking. Drivers who fail or refuse these roadside screening tests will be asked to accompany the officer to a police station or a nearby "booze bus" to undertake an evidential breath and/or blood alcohol test. Refusal to accompany a police officer will result in arrest.
If you are caught over the limit but under 0.08 BAC for drivers 20 and over, or 0.03 BAC for drivers under 20, you will receive an on-the-spot $200 fine and 50 points on your licence (gaining 100 points within two years will result in a 3-month loss of licence). If you are caught over 0.08/0.03 BAC, you will be required to go to court, where you will receive a minimum 6 months loss of licence and likely a hefty fine. If you cause an accident while drink-driving and injure or kill someone, it will be treated as dangerous driving, which carries a minimum 12 months loss of licence and potentially up to 10 years in prison.
Wearing seatbelts in cars and vans is compulsory where one is provided. There are very limited exceptions: for medical reasons (with a medical certificate), taxi drivers plying for hire, and courier/postal drivers and meter readers (as long as their vehicle stays under 50 km/h). All passengers aged 14 years old or older are responsible for wearing their own seatbelts, but the driver is responsible for ensuring children are restrained. Children aged 6 and under must be restrained in an approved child safety seat; children aged 7 must use an approved child safety seat if one is provided. If you are in a car, even a taxi, buckle up. You could be fined $150 if you are not wearing your seatbelt, even as a passenger.
Overtaking vs. Passing
In New Zealand, when a passing manoeuvre takes you over the centre line into the oncoming vehicle lanes, it is termed overtaking. When a passing manoeuvre is completed within the traffic lanes on your side of the road, it is termed passing.
Most of New Zealand's roads are single carriageways with only one lane in each direction, and few median barriers. Passing lanes exist, but are mainly on major routes only and are often fairly short (rarely over 1.5 km long).
As you will be driving on the left, passing is usually done on the right. When there are two or more lanes on your side of the centre line, you may pass on the left if it is safe. You can also pass on the left if the vehicle in front is turning right. Slower vehicles are expected to travel in the left lanes when multiple lanes travel in the same direction, but might not do so, for example in heavy traffic, or for the convenience of not switching lanes. Also a driver is legally obligated, where possible, to drive in the left hand lane, however this is rarely enforced.
Overtaking may mean crossing the centre line and driving in a lane used by oncoming vehicles. If you choose to overtake then make sure you spend as little time as possible on the opposite side of the road and only overtake when you can maintain at least 100 m of clear road until you finish the manoeuvre. Don't exceed the speed limit, as speeding to minimise the time spent on the wrong side of the road will still be viewed by the police as dangerous.
If the road is painted with a solid yellow line on the immediate left of the white dotted centre line, you must not cross the yellow line. You can only overtake here if you can do so without crossing the yellow line, such as when there are two lanes going your way. A yellow line means there could be oncoming traffic that is hidden by a dip, hill or curve in the road.
Passing lanes may sometimes be legally used by vehicles overtaking in the opposite direction too (but only when the lane is clear – traffic on the same side of the centre line as the passing lane has right of way). This depends on whether the centre line markings have double yellow lines (no crossing) or a single yellow line with a white broken line (crossing permitted from the white line side only), so keep to the left whilst driving in a passing lane except when overtaking.
If you are travelling below the speed limit on two-lane roads and holding up other traffic, you must pull over to the left to allow them to pass, or increase your speed to the posted speed limit, conditions allowing. You might pull to the left edge of the road and indicate a left signal briefly.
If you are involved in an accident, the first thing to do is to stop your vehicle in a safe place and check on all the other people involved. If anyone is injured or trapped, immediately call emergency services on 111. If police do not attend the accident, the accident must be reported to them within 24 hours. Fleeing the scene (hit-and-run), even if the accident was not your fault, will be treated as dangerous driving and will be punished severely in court.
If the accident is minor and nobody is injured, exchange your name, address, contact details, vehicle details (registration plate, make, model) and insurance details with all affected parties. Do not admit liability - leave that for the insurance companies to sort out. If you damage a parked car, another person's property or hit an animal, you must try to locate the owner; if after 48 hours you cannot locate the owner, you must report the accident to Police within 12 hours (i.e. within 60 hours of the accident).
To prevent rubbernecking accidents, a speed limit of 20 km/h is enforced in both directions passing an accident scene.
In New Zealand, the road rules are primarily enforced by the Police. While there are dedicated Highway Patrol police, any on-duty police officer has the power to enforce the road rules. Plain-clothes officers are required to wear their police hat when pulling over a vehicle. Police do not have to have a reason to pull over a vehicle or ask the driver to undergo a breath screening test. Failure to stop for police will result in arrest and an appearance in court. Enforcement of parking rules is usually the responsibility of local councils.
If you break the road rules, in most cases you will be given an infringement notice ("ticket"). The fine must be paid within 28 days; instructions on how to pay are on the notice. If you don't pay, you're likely to be summonsed to appear in court where you will face an even larger fine. For some offences, a police officer may give you compliance. If you complete the conditions of the compliance within 28 days, the infringement notice will be waived.
If you receive an infringement notice from a police officer, you will also receive demerit points. Typically these range from 10 to 50 points. if you accumulate more than 100 points within a two-year period, your licence will be suspended for 3 months. For some serious offences, such as exceeding the speed limit by 40 km/h or more, you will receive a 28-day roadside licence suspension. If your licence is suspended, you will not be allowed to drive your vehicle from where it is stopped, so you will need to arrange for someone to pick you and your car up. If you try to drive while suspended, you will have your car impounded and you will likely have to appear in court.
In serious cases, such as drunk driving or careless driving, you may be summonsed to appear in court. Traffic offences are dealt with in the first instance by the District Court. If you are summonsed to court and don't turn up, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. Sentences that can be given by the court for driving offences include long-term disqualification from driving, fines, paying reparation, community work, and in very severe cases (e.g. if you kill someone), imprisonment.
New Zealand road signs follow a mixture of European and American conventions. The full range of signs is illustrated in the New Zealand Road Code. There are three types:
Regulatory signs — those that must be obeyed by law— have a red border or background for prohibitory signs (something you mustn't do), or a blue background for mandatory signs (something you must do).
- STOP signs require a vehicle be stopped at an intersection and not proceed until the way is clear. Stopping is mandatory, no matter what time of day or the traffic conditions.
- GIVE WAY signs require a vehicle to give way or yield right of way to other vehicles (except those controlled by a stop sign). Stopping is not required.
Warning signs, which should be obeyed for safety reasons, have black borders and symbols with a yellow (permanent) or orange (temporary) background.
Information signs, which give information, normally have white borders and symbols or text with either a blue, green, or brown background. This includes many parking signs, and fines may be imposed by the local council, rather than the police, if parking limits are exceeded. Rectangular blue signs with a white border that read Pxx (where xx is a number) indicate the maximum number of minutes that a vehicle may remain parked in that area (e.g. P60 indicates maximum 60 minutes).
White lines are used to mark the roads; solid lines indicate road boundaries, parking spaces, stopping positions and centre lines at intersections. Broken or dotted lines indicate lanes and centre lines. As a general rule, it is permissible to cross a broken white line, while a solid white line indicates some road rule limits when that line should be crossed.
Yellow centre lines are used to indicate when passing or crossing the centre line is not permitted. Broken yellow lines on the side of the road are used to indicate No Stopping areas or parking spaces reserved for special vehicles.
Controlled intersections (traffic lights or signs) have limit lines that vehicles need to stop behind at these intersections (legally, you must stop with your front wheels behind the line - your front bumper is allowed over the line). These lines are often set back a few metres from the intersection, and if you cross the line, say at a right turn, your vehicle may not be detected by the traffic light sensors and you may not get the green light.
Diagonal, often yellow, cross hatchings in an intersection shows that the exit to the intersection often is blocked, and you must not obstruct the intersection by stopping in the (marked) area of the intersection, though this rule applies at every intersection, marked or not.
Large diagonal white lines in the centre of the road indicate a 'flush median'. This may be used only when turning right, never for overtaking.
Bus lanes are often, though not always, painted green. Cars should not be driven in bus lanes unless a sign indicates permission; some bus lanes may be open to cars that are carrying passengers or travelling at certain times of the day or week. You may travel for 50 m in a bus lane if you have just entered a road or are going to turn left within this distance.
At pedestrian crossings (zebra crossings), white parallel lines are painted across the road. A white diamond is usually painted on the road before pedestrian crossing, together with warning signs and amber flashing lights or round orange reflectors on black and white striped poles at the crossing.
Drivers must stop for pedestrians waiting at the crossing. This applies to the whole crossing and pedestrians on both sides of the road, even if the white centreline passes through the crossing or there is a painted centre median. Only when there is a raised traffic island may the crossings in either traffic direction be treated separately. Vehicles may proceed once the pedestrian has safely passed by the front of their vehicle.
If the word SCHOOL is painted by the diamond or on the warning sign, the crossing is controlled by a School Patrol with round STOP signs. Traffic must stop and stay stopped if even one school patrol stop sign is displayed on either side of school patrol crossings. Although these crossings are often operated by trained school children, there is generally a responsible adult supervising too. Crossing patrols operate about half an hour before and after school, typically 8:30-9AM and 2-3:30PM.
Traffic signals (traffic lights)
All New Zealand traffic signals are standardised with red on top, amber in the middle, and green at the bottom. Only one colour shows at a time; unlike the UK, there is no red and amber phase indicating the lights will shortly change to green.
The following lights occur:
- Flashing red: stop and stay stopped until the lights stop flashing. Normally encountered only outside fire stations, ambulance stations, airport runways and at railway crossings.
- Red: stop and stay stopped until the light goes out. Unlike in some other countries, you cannot turn left on the red signal.
- Red arrow: stop for the direction of the arrow.
- Flashing amber: a road hazard. If encountered at traffic lights, it means the lights are out of order; if there is no police officer on points duty, the give way rules apply.
- Amber: stop unless you cannot safely do so.
- Amber arrow: Stop for the direction of the arrow - unless you cannot safely do so.
- Green: you may proceed if the way is clear - i.e., you still have to give way to other vehicles or pedestrians.
- Green arrow: you may proceed in the direction of the arrow. All oncoming vehicles and pedestrians should have stopped.
Other symbols such as a bicycle or a letter mean the lights apply to the specific vehicle identified in the symbol.
- Red and green person: used at pedestrian crossings beside the lights. A flashing red person means finish crossing but do not start crossing. If there are no pedestrian lights illuminated, push the crossing button to activate them. Watch out in central Wellington as some pedestrian crossings have unconventional green person figures.
Certain vehicles are fitted with flashing lights to warn road users.
- Flashing red lights are found on emergency vehicles such as fire engines and ambulances. Pull over and let them pass.
- Flashing red and blue lights are found on police cars; pull over and stop.
- Flashing blue lights are used on customs officer, fishery officer and marine reserve officer vehicles; pull over and stop.
- Flashing green lights may be used by doctors, nurses or midwives on urgent business. Pull over and let them pass.
- Flashing amber lights are used on tow trucks and road maintenance vehicles. Slow down and prepare to stop.
- Flashing amber and purple lights are used on vehicles piloting oversize loads. Slow down and prepare to stop.
In urban areas the speed limit is 50 km/h unless there are signs indicating otherwise.
Auckland is the largest city, and drivers will encounter some traffic congestion at peak times, which remains mild by international standards. Other major cities such as Wellington also have traffic jams around 8AM and 5PM on key roads in and out of the city. At off-peak times driving from the city to the airport can take 25 min. In peak times it can take up to an hour, but generally 40 min, to travel the same route. There are areas of extensive road building/improvements through the city and can cause delays where they meet the existing network. Note that particularly in Auckland but anywhere in the country, roads do not often follow a grid pattern and fog can be an early-morning obstacle. Remain alert.
While there are not a lot of one-way streets in New Zealand, Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch do have one-way systems or significant one-way streets in the cities' central business districts. Be particularly careful in Wellington where not only one-way streets but also bus-only streets exist. Also, be particularly careful of the unusually high kerbs in Wellington, which can cause a driver to scrape the paintwork or undercarriage of the car when normally they would expect only the tyres to hit the kerb.
Due to the low population density, New Zealand only has around 300 km (190 mi) of motorways (freeways) and expressways, and these are mainly concentrated around Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The Waikato Expressway from Auckland to Hamilton is the only substantive inter-city expressway, and even then it is only 85% complete, with a long two-lane undivided section through the town of Huntly. Elsewhere, New Zealand highways are mainly two-lane undivided sealed roads.
The default speed limit on the main highways and motorways is 100 km/h (or the maximum permitted speed for your vehicle, whichever is lower). Some semi-rural roads have 70 km/h or 80 km/h limits, especially approaching and leaving urban areas. Some roads have variable speed limit signs which activate in certain conditions, such as bad weather or cars waiting to turn out of a side road.
Some road signs do not follow the international standard, and "open-road-signs" are still in use in less used roads. These are white signs with a black stripe across them which denote a 100 km/h zone. But drivers are expected to adjust their speed in bad conditions (it is unlikely that you will be fined for travelling at 100 km/h even in relatively bad conditions on the "open road"). However, caution is advised as many of these roads are in comparatively poor condition with potholes, etc., making some of them dangerous even at the best of times).
When overtaking slower traffic, you will have to pull over to the right into the lane used by oncoming traffic. This should only be done when there is no oncoming traffic and you have plenty of visibility, and you should complete it as quickly as possible. Overtaking is legal when the dividing line is a broken line, but illegal when the dividing line is a solid line. Do not ever overtake by pulling over to the left onto the shoulder, as New Zealand drivers will not anticipate this; it is also very dangerous and illegal.
Be careful when turning into side roads while in rural areas. Stopping in the middle of the road while waiting to turn often results in a rear collision. Drivers may wait to the left of the road instead of the middle.
Rural roads can vary dramatically. Most state highways and rural roads can be winding, fast, have one lane on each side of the road, and have tight corners. While the speed limit is freeway-like (100 km/h), the conditions are more dangerous than freeways as there is no barrier separating you from oncoming traffic. Modern sections of rural state highway (built or rebuilt since the mid-1980s) are usually built to a high standard with wide lanes and shoulders, and fast curves designed to be taken at 100 km/h, although they are still only one lane in each direction with no median barrier. Oblong black and yellow arrow signs with a number (e.g. "65") approximately indicate the tightness of an upcoming turn; the number indicates an appropriate speed (in km/h) to travel at through the corner. (Two separate signs showing the curve and its suggested speed are also commonly used.) In good conditions an experienced driver may be able to take the bend at up to 10–20 km/h more than the marked speed. However for signs reading 45 or less the speed advice should be taken literally as all 45 km/h turns are tight corners and it is hard to remain in your lane at above this speed. Also in bad weather it is often necessary to follow precisely the advice of all these signs.
The main national highway network in New Zealand is the State Highway network, which connects major towns, cities and destinations in both main islands. State Highways are indicated by a number in a red shield, and directional signage on State Highways is green. State Highway 1 runs the length of both islands, State Highways 2-5 and 10-58 are in the North Island, and State Highways 6-8 and 60-99 are in the South Island. Highways are numbered roughly north to south, e.g. State Highway 20 is in southern Auckland, State Highway 58 is in Wellington, and State Highway 76 is in Christchurch. State highway spurs and bypasses have a letter suffix, e.g. State Highway 20A is the highway connecting State Highway 20 with Auckland Airport.
Due to New Zealand's sparse population, most intercity State Highways are undivided two-lane roads (one lane in each direction) with at-grade intersections. Multi-lane divided highways, termed motorways or expressways, are generally only found near major cities. Motorways are fully grade-separated and are reserved for motorised traffic only; expressways can be used by non-motorised traffic and may have the occasional at-grade intersection. On lesser trafficked State Highways, vehicles may encounter narrow roads with limited overtaking opportunities and single-lane bridges; one State Highway still even has unsealed sections!
There are three toll roads in New Zealand, located near Auckland and Tauranga. All are electronic toll roads; there are no booths so you need to purchase the toll before or within three days after using the road. Tolls can be purchased online at tollroad.govt.nz, at selected BP and Caltex petrol stations (a $1.20 transaction fee applies), or by phoning 0800 40 20 20 (a $3.70 transaction fee applies). You will need your vehicle's registration number. Tolls effective 1 March 2019:
- SH 1 Northern Gateway Toll Road, north of Auckland between Orewa interchange and Puhoi interchange. Light vehicles $2.49, heavy vehicles $4.80.
- SH 2 Tauranga Eastern Link Toll Road, east of Tauranga between Domain Road interchange and Paengaroa roundabout (SH 33). Light vehicles $2.10, heavy vehicles $5.20.
- SH 29 Takitimu Drive Toll Road, south-western Tauranga between SH 2 interchange and SH 36 roundabout. Light vehicles $1.90, heavy vehicles $5.00.
A light vehicle is any car, motorcycle or other motor vehicle weighing under 3500 kg (7700 lb); a heavy vehicle is any motor vehicle weighing 3500 kg or over. There is no extra toll payable for trailers and caravans.
- Stock on roads - Flocks of sheep are often driven along roads if their journey is only a few kilometres. Slow right down to a crawl and enjoy the experience. Also, on many dairy farms, cattle have to cross a road to get to and from their milking shed twice a day. Most milking contracts start on 1 June, so pay extra attention in the week before and after as cows are moved between farms.
- Stock trucks - Being an agricultural country, large numbers of animals are transported around the country by large trucks towing equally large trailers. Although these trucks have effluent tanks to capture animal droppings, there is still some spillage or spray drift occasionally. Avoid following these vehicles too closely and keep the windscreen washer bottle full so that any "spray" can be washed off.
- One-lane bridges - Typically found on lesser travelled highways, but occasionally on more busy routes. They are marked so that traffic in one direction has right-of-way (blue informational sign) and the other direction must give way (red and white compulsory sign). Some longer bridges have a passing bay in the middle.
- Railway crossings - there are still a number of level crossings on the main roads. Many of these crossings do not have barrier arms, but only warning lights and bells. Some mainline crossings only have a "Stop" sign or "Give Way" sign. Railway crossings are usually well sign-posted but there are a number of fatal crashes on these each year. Watch out in areas where the railway line runs parallel to the road - if you are turning over the railway line, it is easy to become distracted trying to navigate the intersection and not notice the level crossing alarms or an approaching train until it is too late to stop.
- Roadworks - New Zealand roads are mostly "tar and gravel" surfaced. These need to be regularly resealed, often a few kilometres at a time. The normal speed limit through road works is 30 km/h, especially if there is loose gravel. Higher speeds may damage new seal and throw up stones to damage bodywork and smash glass. Watch out for temporary signs warning of New Seal. Motorcyclists should take extra care, as irregular and cursory sweeping of the newly-laid surfaces can result in extremely dangerous corners.
- Loose gravel - On rural highways, often a layer of loose gravel or road grit left over from winter on the edges of the road. A bad line through a corner can easily result in a major crash if a wheel enters the gravel or grit at the wrong time.
- Summer rainstorms - Many parts of New Zealand have long periods without rain during the summer, during which tyre rubber and engine oil accumulate on the road surface. This can lead to the road surface becoming surprisingly slippery when it does rain. Also be aware that some rainstorms - especially hailstorms - are caused by a cold front. The sudden drop in air temperature on a previously warm summers day with an closed car can - almost instantly - fog the windscreen - too fast for even air-conditioning to clear it. If you notice your windscreen starting to fog when encountering summer rain, start the demister immediately, or slow down and pull off the road as soon as you can.
- Unsealed roads - there are a good number of unsealed roads (otherwise known as gravel roads, or "metal" roads) in New Zealand. They are usually marked on maps although seal is gradually being extended so older maps may not be up to date. If you do drive on them, don't drive too fast - 60 km/h is about the maximum speed for safe driving on such roads. Slow down when passing vehicles or people if there there are loose stones on the road as tyres can send these hurtling at high speeds.
- Foreign drivers - Foreign drivers who are not acclimatised to New Zealand driving conditions or rules can behave unpredictably, a particular hazard is people forgetting that NZ drives on the left and wandering over the centre line. Foreign drivers were involved in 19 fatal car accidents in New Zealand in 2012 (out of 267 in total), and were at fault in all but one of them! Foreign drivers can also suffer from jet lag leading to tired driving.
The main hazards are:
- Logging trucks - in the centre of the island there are major forests with lots of trucks transporting logs to the pulp mills or to the ports of Tauranga and Wellington.
- Snow and ice - this is a winter hazard on State Highway 1 on the Desert Road: the section between Waiouru and Turangi. As this section of the road passes the main volcanic peaks and is on the main north–south road it is well travelled. Check on the status of the road in winter. The other main route which is subject to this hazard is the Napier–Taupo road. Grit is often spread on icy roads, but salt is never used.
- Slips - after heavy rain many roads become subject to slips (small avalanches) and it is as well to drive more carefully on winding roads through valleys or cuttings.
- Drainage ditches - some roads, especially in the Waikato, have deep water-carrying ditches on one or both sides of the road. These are often obscured by long grass and are easy to fall into if you leave the tarseal.
- High-risk roads - the following roads have a high rate of serious and fatal crashes for the amount of traffic they handle, so take extra care:
- SH 1, section between Kaitaia and Ohaeawai (SH 12 junction)
- SH 2, sections between Matata and Opotiki, Gisborne and Bay View (SH 5 junction), and Featherston and Upper Hutt (Remutaka Hill Road)
- SH 12, section between Ohaeawai and Dargaville
- SH 14, entire length
- SH 16, section between Helensville and Wellsford
- SH 30, section between Te Kuiti and Atiamuri (SH 1 junction)
- SH 31, entire length
- SH 34, entire length
- SH 35, section between Opotiki and Tokomaru Bay
- SH 36, entire length
- SH 37, entire length (Waitomo access road)
- SH 38, southern section between Wairoa and Waikeremoana
- SH 41, entire length
- SH 43, entire length (Forgotton World Highway)
- State Highway 2 between the start at Pokeno and Mangatarata (SH 25 junction) is a stretch of road with many fatal head-on traffic crashes. This is a section of winding 2-lane road with a few short passing places and heavy traffic flows (especially over holidays and weekends during summer). Much of this stretch of road has had the speed limit reduced to 90 km/h with the exception of two straighter passing areas. A bypass of Maungatawhiri was completed to remove one of the most winding sections.
- The Desert Road, State Highway 1 between Waiouru and Turangi - as mentioned above, this well-travelled road is subject to snow and ice in winter. Watch your speed on the long straight sections, as it is very easy to put your foot down and the local police like to frequent this section, especially in unmarked cars. The last 22 km approaching Waiouru runs through an army training area, so do not stray from the road.
- The Centennial Highway, which is part of State Highway 1, between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay has gained a reputation as a fatal head-on traffic crash black spot. This is a 10 km section of narrow, 2-lane road with no passing places, heavy traffic flows and no room for driver error. Watch your speed, following distance, lane position and above all be patient. Crashes in this area will often close the road for several hours. Transit New Zealand are installing a median barrier along this highway to eliminate head-on collisions. For a more scenic trip take the Paekakariki Hill Road, which gives spectacular views of the Kapiti Coast and Tasman Sea.
The South Island used to be home to a number of combined road-rail bridges, particularly on State Highway 6 on the West Coast. The last of these bridges was bypassed on 22 July 2018, so you no longer have to worry about the scary thought of meeting a train head-on halfway across the bridge.
The main hazards are:
- Snow and ice – some roads in the South Island, particularly the mountain passes, are occasionally closed by snow and ice, or passable with the use of snow chains in winter. The main ski fields are in the South Island and travellers to these should ensure they have chains for their vehicles. Grit, rather than salt, is spread to provide grip on icy roads.
- Roundabouts with railways – There are some roundabouts in the South Island which are bisected by railway lines, so make sure you check for trains before entering the roundabout. While most are relatively mundane, there is a monster of one in Blenheim: State Highway 1 meets two of the town's main streets meets another minor street meets the main Picton-Christchurch railway!
- Kea – the world's only alpine parrot is found near many mountain passes and they are notorious for causing damage to vehicles by pulling out antennas, rubber window trims and windscreen wipers, and stealing the odd wallet. To try to prevent damage, don't leave your windows or doors open, do not leave food, food packaging or scraps where they can get to it, and do not feed them.
- High-risk roads – the following roads have a high rate of serious and fatal crashes for the amount of traffic they handle, so take extra care:
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