Though some people might be under the impression that driving is the same no matter where you are, each country has its own traffic rules that need to be observed. The land down under is no exception. American travelers in Australia should have no problem navigating the English-speaking country's road signs, but driving on the opposite side of the road and the opposite side of the car can be tricky. Additionally, before getting behind the wheel in Australia, you should familiarize yourself with the rules of the road and the lay of the land.
To drive in Australia, you must hold an international driver’s permit in addition to the license issued to you in your home country.
Checklist for Driving in Australia
- International Driver's Permit (IDP)
- Valid driver's license
In Australia, it should be easy to understand road signs in English, but you should still familiarize yourself with the driving laws in Australia and the common customs. Keep in mind that speed limits are heavily enforced.
- Driving on the left: In Australia, keeping to the left side of the road is a must. Once you get in the car, it will take some time to adjust to sitting and driving on the opposite side of the car, so take a moment to figure out where everything is and spend some time practicing in a quiet area before jumping onto a major highway.
- Speed limits: Speed limits vary by territory, but are typically as high as 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles per hour) in school zones, 50 kph (31 mph) in built-up areas, and 110 kph (68 mph) on highways. In the Northern Territory, which is where you'll find the famous Uluru rock formation, speed limits tend to be higher and on some roads can be as high as 130 kph (80 mph). Drivers traveling below the speed limit generally stay in the leftmost lane in order to prevent holding up other drivers.
- Right of way: When crossing a T intersection, the motorist driving straight through has right of way. Drivers are also required to give pedestrians right of way in crossings and shared zones.
- Tolls: Tollways refer to passages that charge a toll fee from the driver. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Harbour Tunnel, and a few other highways and freeways, particularly in Sydney, are tollways, so it’s always a good idea to have change ready so you can get through the gates quickly and avoid holding up traffic. Some tolls are fully electronic, so ask your rental company about purchasing a visitor's pass to pay for tolls.
- Seat belts: By law, seatbelts must be worn by drivers and all passengers at all times.
- Smoking: It is illegal to smoke in a car when a child under the age of 18 (or under 17 in Western Australia) is present.
- Alcohol: It’s illegal to drink and drive in Australia. The maximum blood alcohol level is 0.05%.
- Cell phones: You are never permitted to use a handheld mobile phone while driving. This isn’t just limited to calls, but you are also prohibited from texting, browsing the internet, and playing games.
- In case of emergency: The emergency phone number in Australia is 000 (triple zero), which will gain you access to police, ambulance, and fire services.
Australia is a huge country and while it's easy to get around the large cities like Sydney and Melbourne without a car, you should probably rent one if you plan to be doing any driving in the mountains or in the outback.
In rural Australia, it's likely you'll come across gravel and unsealed roads, so make sure your car is up for the task. Most major highways will be paved, but if you are planning a big adventure, the best thing to do is rent a car with four-wheel drive.
Ensure your vehicle is in good condition when traveling to remote areas. Make sure you have a spare tire, plenty of fuel, food, and water, and are prepared for the conditions you’re driving into. As the distance between towns can be significantly larger in Australia, it is a good idea to inform family and friends of where you’re going and what time you expect to arrive.
Weather can be extreme in Australia and floods, wildfires, and cyclones are common occurrences. During your trip, pay attention to the local weather forecasts and stay off the roads during storms and floods.
It may sound like a joke, but keep an eye out for kangaroos. Kangaroo collisions account for the majority of car accidents involving wildlife. And with some kangaroos weighing up to 100 pounds and standing up to five feet tall, these accidents can be very serious. Pay attention to the warning signs and stay vigilant while driving, especially when you are passing through an open area. In addition to kangaroos and other wildlife like emus, wombats, and koalas, you should also keep an eye for domesticated livestock like cows and horses.
If an animal is crossing in front of you, the best thing to do is slow and down and wait for it to pass. Swerving can be extremely dangerous and your car may roll off the road.
You'll be most at risk of hitting a kangaroo at dusk and dawn, when the animals are most active or at night, when they could be blinded by your car's headlights. If you do find yourself in the unfortunate situation of striking a kangaroo (or any other animal) with your vehicle, pull over and call the police or, if you have it, the number of a wildlife rescue service. Do not approach the kangaroo under any circumstances. Kangaroos have sharp claws and powerful kicks, so by spooking them you could cause injury to yourself.
Should You Rent a Car?
If you are planning on traveling long distances in between cities, it would beneficial to rent a car, but it's not totally necessary if you plan on staying within the city you are visiting. However, if you're thinking about taking day trips or visiting somewhere rural, a car would be best for getting around on your own schedule. Driving distances between cities are long in Australia, so it might be worth it to compare the cost of airfare before committing to a road trip.
Australia is a large continent and most of the population lives on the east coast, which is why you'll find that major highways become more sparse as you move out west. Major cities are well connected along the coastal routes, but if you would like to drive through the Australian heartland, you will have to stick to the handful of major highways.
On the eastern coast of Australia cities from Cairns in the north to Melbourne and Adelaide in the South are connected on the coast, with a few routes cutting through New South Wales and Victoria, which offer a more direct route between cities. There are few major highways in the center of Australia, with just one route that bisects the continent and connects the northern city of Darwin to Adelaide via Alice Springs. In Western Australia, there is nothera coastal route that connects Perth to Broome and alternate highway, which can be used to travel all the way from Perth to Darwin.
Automatic vs. Stick Shift Driving
In Australia, American tourists will be happy to know that most Australians drive with automatic transmissions. In fact, in most Australian states, a special license is required of new drivers to drive a car with a manual transmission. South Australia is the only exception.