Driving in Australia for the first time
I drove a $600 candy apple red ’69 Ford Econoline out of Skip’s Autos in the shadow of LAX. It was 1990, I was 20 years old and I was shitting myself. Driving in Australia for the first time will likely be your LAX, but fear not. If you’ve never driven on the “wrong side” of the road, you’ll be fine. Yes it feels foreign… for about a minute. Yes, you’ll keep flicking the wipers on when you mean to indicate and yes, you will pull out onto the wrong side of the road from time to time. But rest assured, before long you won’t even be thinking about it, your biggest concern in Australia will be if this straight stretch of road will ever end, avoiding kangaroos and not getting booked for speeding… but you’ll still flick the wipers on to indicate.
Most Australian states will allow drivers with international licenses, although some may require a formal translation. The Nothern Territory is the exception, this government website will give you some definitive guidance.
Roads & Traffic
Fun fact, the network of highways that make up Australia’s “Highway 1” is the longest national highway in the world at 14,500km. Australia roads are among the safest in the world, twice as safe as the US… to help keep it that way try to remember to DRIVE ON THE LEFT! There may not be the volume of traffic compared to European and US urban centres but Melbourne, Sydney and the Brisbane/Gold Coast area in peak times will make you feel at home if that’s what you are used to.
The quality of the roads is very high but they do vary from state to state. Probably the biggest challenge you’ll face is the vast distances between towns and fuel stops in regional areas. Not so much in Victoria, Tasmania and the eastern side of NSW. The further you go north or inland – that’d be the “outback” – you’ll need to be vigilant. Signage saying last fuel for “x” kilometres is common… you’d do well to notice them!
Animal strikes are a concern and driving at dusk or dawn can be tricky, especially on outback roads when the likelihood of hitting kangaroos and other animals are greater. I’ve seen what a wild boar can do to a small rental, nasty. In the northern and central parts of Australia you may also encounter straying or wild horses and pastoral cattle, camels and emus. The endangered cassowaries is another one to look out for – a giant bird found in the northern Queensland rainforests. It’s not advisable to swerve to avoid animals, slowing down is your best defence.
Get out if the way of “road trains”… say what? Yes road trains, two, three and four trailers of thunder and dust. You’ll see and feel them coming, you’re best to pull off the road and put your hand on the windscreen to stop it from shattering when the stones fly. Be very careful if you are considering overtaking them, there’s a lot of sideways movement happening there.
Speed & Enforcement
In a nut shell it’s 50kph in urban areas and 100kph on open roads (110kph in Western Australia and Northern Territory). But if you stick to that advice you’ll most certainly get a speeding ticket. Huh?… well, 80kph is common, so is 40kph in school zones and road works but 20, 70 and 90kph is not unheard of. The point being, watch out for the signs. Speed enforcement is big in Australia, mobile cameras are everywhere in unmarked vehicles and the cities have fixed speed and red light cameras. So don’t be surprised if your car rental provider docks your credit card weeks after your holiday is a distant memory.
White speed limit signs are not to be confused with yellow “advisory signs” which are not enforced speed limits, they’re just to help guide you away from the cliff edge. While I’m on that, traffic enforcement has played a big part in making Australian roads among the safest in the world so there is a temptation to rant about the “nanny” state, which is a decisive issue, but you might be interested to know that it is illegal to leave your car unlocked, leaving the window down more than a few centimetres is also illegal.
Alcohol and substance abuse is not tolerated on Australian roads. Police breathe testing for alcohol and illicit drugs is very common, .05 is the BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) limit nationwide, which is around 1 drink per hour. Testing stations will be out in force on weekends and around events. There’s no “walking a straight line”, all police cars have the ability to test your BAC level.
They might seem a little daunting at first but they are actually really simple. GIVE WAY TO ANY VEHICLE ALREADY ON THE ROUNDABOUT. Here’s a video that explains more.
Let’s be clear. There are very few people in Australia that enjoy a “hook turn”. Even Melbournians don’t relish the prospect despite having them in spades… you’ll often hear stories about how people will just do a series of left turns to avoid them, I’ve done that and told that story. The good news is that only Melbourne has them, they are a spin off of the tram system, never good being hit by a tram. Just watch this.
Pedestrians are supposed to use “zebra” crossings or traffic lights to cross the road. Unlike the US, pedestrians should’t just walk across the road and expect oncoming traffic to give way to them. Of course it is the drivers duty of care not to take out a pedestrian. Also school zones operate crossings with reduced speed limits (usually 40kph) at specific hours so be on the look out!
Whilst getting towed or clamped isn’t as common in Australia as it is in the US or the UK, you’ll certainly need to watch out in the cities. But getting parking tickets is very common, they are a very good revenue source for local councils and run from around $30 to $100 for the run of the mill overstay of a time limit or for not displaying a ticket. Watch out if you park in a disabled spot, apart from being a dick move it’ll cost you $531 in NSW.
Basically any lines on the road will mean you have some type of restriction re parking. When in doubt look for the signs, for example if a sign says “P2” but doesn’t mention the word “meter” then you’re good for 2 hours of free parking. Parking inspectors will chalk your tyres to keep tabs on how long you stay. Most councils have ticket stations that cover an area, it’s up to you to find it and put the ticket on your dashboard so that it is clearly visible.
*Unlike Europe and the U.K., it is illegal to park with your car facing the flow of traffic.
Beach & 4×4 Driving
If this is your thing… you’re in luck. Whilst you can drive around Australia quite happily in a two wheel drive car (even in the popular remote outback regions like Uluru and Kakadu), there are some unique experiences to be had from behind the wheel of a 4X4.
There are quite a few states that allow beach driving in specific areas (some require permits). Not so much in the south eastern states, but Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Fraser Island and Western Australian beaches are largely open to it as are parts of the coast of South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. A word of warning, just be careful to check your tides or you might end up like these guys. Click the below links for some great advice on the basics of beach driving state by state.
The above links will also be full of advice for general 4×4 driving. Isolation is something that catches out many foreign tourists looking for the off-road experience. If this is part of your plan make sure you do your homework, getting stranded in Australia’s outback can be deadly.
Rates are pretty standard relative to other parts of the world, there will be restriction as to where you can take vehicles on unsealed roads. You’d do yourself a favour by going with a rental the allows unlimited mileage. One-way rental fees are reasonable along the east coast but they’re a killer in more remote areas, see this post for more information on one-way rentals. Camper and 4X4 rental will increase your initial costs considerably but will pay returns in alternate experiences. To help offset the costs, camping or caravan parks are very popular in Australia as are free camping areas where smaller towns are trying to encourage tourists by setting up sites on the outskirts of towns. Regular births at a commercial caravan park, with power hook up, will run at around $30 – $50 per night.
You can check car rental here or the search engine above which will scan available rental companies. If you are just looking for something around town or to explore the city you’re in you could try car sharing apps like Car Next Door where you can use private cars by the day and hour. Coseats is another which also lists campervan rental relocations, which is basically returning rental cars to their point of origin. You can often get free campers but the time restriction is the catch.
Buying a car
There’s plenty of cheap vehicles you could buy if you want to take the risk/responsibility of it breaking down. From personal experience, Toyota’s are as reliable as they come and are very economical. First, you’ll need an address to register your vehicle at, so there’s your first hurdle. If you can figure that one out (perhaps a friend), you’ll then need to transfer the registration into your name and to do that you must have a “roadworthy certificate” (each state has different requirements and require specific certificates to that state). You cannot transfer registration of a motor vehicle without one of these, so be careful, if someone won’t supply a “roadworthy certificate” with the sale then it probably means there are problems with the vehicle and it will cost a lot to get one.
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