The Tourism Industry Association New Zealand recommends visitors to practice driving in their arrival city before heading out on a self-drive tour. // © 2015 Tourism Industry Association New Zealand
Feature image (above): Camper vans are a transportation option for independent travelers. // © 2015 Tourism Industry Association New Zealand
Many of my favorite New Zealand travel experiences involve driving alone on some of the country’s picturesque rural roadways and the unforgettable thrill of having no idea about what sort of dramatic vista might reveal itself around the next corner.
Exploring New Zealand in a rental car, or even a camper van, is a terrific way to see some of the nation’s jaw-dropping natural beauty. However, for travelers visiting from the U.S., driving on the other side of the road can be stressful at first — especially when the steering wheel and foot pedals are all on the opposite side of the car.
The Tourism Industry Association New Zealand (TIA), a private sector trade organization with about 1,500 members nationwide, has launched a new website that provides visitors with basic info about the country’s road regulations and proper driving etiquette. The DriveSafe.org.nz website also suggests driving itineraries around Auckland and Christchurch, New Zealand’s largest international travel gateways, where foreign visitors can become more accustomed to driving their rental vehicle before heading out to explore in earnest.
“DriveSafe certainly highlights that we drive on the left,” Chris Roberts, chief executive of TIA, told TravelAge West. “While we don’t offer specific advice on how to drive on the left, we do recommend that visitors plan to stay their first night or two in their arrival city to give themselves time to adjust to New Zealand road conditions and rules and to get used to driving their new vehicle.”
Roberts is no stranger to the anxiety that driving on the other side of the road in a foreign country can create. A few years ago, he and his family explored France and Italy in a rental car, starting their driving adventure in Paris after traveling across the channel by train from London.
“We didn’t speak French, so we got very limited advice, and found ourselves trying to make our way out of Paris in the pouring rain and driving on the other side of the road,” he recalled. “To be honest, it was rather scary and required enormous concentration. But, we quickly got used to the driving conditions as well as being in a left-hand-drive vehicle on the right-hand side of the road.”
My driving experiences in New Zealand have been similar, requiring a lot of focus initially before settling into keeping the vehicle on the other side of the road. Getting used to the turn signal on the opposite side of the steering wheel always seems to take more time, however. I was regularly running the windshield wipers instead of announcing my plans to make a turn.
Still, foreign drivers and their lack of familiarity with New Zealand’s road rules and customs have developed into a growing concern for many of the country’s residents, Roberts reported.
“This has been partly prompted by a high-profile petition launched by a 9-year-old Geraldine boy, Sean Roberts, whose father was killed in a crash caused by an inexperienced [foreign] driver in 2012,” Roberts explained. “The petition calls for foreign drivers to be tested before they are allowed on New Zealand roads. There have also been a number of crashes caused by foreign drivers in the last 12 months that received a large amount of publicity.”
Roberts said the TIA does not support driver tests for visitors, explaining that they would be difficult to implement, unlikely to have any real benefit and in breach of international conventions. He also noted that the number of driving accidents involving visitors across New Zealand has not changed significantly in the past 10 years, citing government data. But, Roberts conceded that parts of the country where visitors travel most frequently do have an elevated number of auto accidents caused by foreign drivers.
“Some areas, such as the lower South Island and the west coast of the South Island, do have a higher incidence of overseas drivers involved in road crashes,” he said. “This is due to high visitor numbers, combined with challenging roads and road conditions. But, even in those areas, visiting drivers cause fewer crashes than New Zealand drivers.”
Along with challenging roads, unfamiliarity with driving etiquette, and less-than-ideal driving conditions, other auto accidents involving foreign drivers in New Zealand have been caused by speeding visitors, who are running late because of confusion about how long it will actually take to get where they are going.
“New Zealand roads are often narrow, winding and with loose gravel edges,” Roberts said. “It is also not unusual to see sheep or cattle on roads in rural areas. So driving times can be much longer than visitors expect — and longer than their GPS predicts. This can lead to stressful situations where drivers have not allowed enough time to make a plane or ferry booking.”
Along with links to information about current road conditions, DriveSafe.org.nz provides a link to a helpful New Zealand drive time and distance calculator that the TIA recommends for visitor use. Site users will also find helpful videos explaining New Zealand driving basics, links to sites offering winter and bad weather driving advice and a travel safe app.
While the New Zealand government is now working on other initiatives to help foreign drivers, including installing center line rumble strips and even more keep-left arrows painted on roadways in popular visitor destinations across the country, Roberts hopes the new DriveSafe website will be a tool travelers heading to New Zealand will use often.
“The website is designed to encourage visitors to use it at each stage of their trip — before they arrive, when they pick up their rental vehicle and during their journey around New Zealand,” he said. “We want visitors to use the information to be as prepared as possible for their New Zealand driving experience.”