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Driving in Australia

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Oceania : Australasia : Australia : Driving in Australia

Driving in Australia can be an experience to be savored. The wide-open spaces and magnificent natural scenery is well worth the extra time taken. This guide aims to fully prepare drivers for an Australian driving experience.

driving in australia Travel Guide :

Driving in Australia


Speed and distance in Australia are measured in kilometres. Australians drive on the left-hand side of the road.

Road conditions in the 'outback', or center of the country, are much worse than those around the coast. In Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and large parts of South Australia and Queensland almost all the roads are reliable and in good condition, and there are plenty of towns, farms and passing motorists to give directions and aid to the bewildered or lost. Once you leave these areas the quality and repair of the roads drops dramatically, as does the number of people using them.

Driving in Australia

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 (9 hours), and not very much further to Canberra (10 hours) but driving from Melbourne to Sydney is a good 12 hours 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 2,000 km on a dead straight, totally flat road with only a few roadhouses, sometimes hundreds of kilometres apart. You will have to spend at least one night on the road, so book in advance. There is little traffic but what there is will consist of a fair proportion of road trains (semi-trailers towing up to three trailers). They won't brake.

As an example, here are the distances from one state capital to another:

Driving in Australia

Rural driving

Outside of major cities and the coastal routes between some state capitals, 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 will be 100 or 110km/hr) 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 right hand lane (the one with oncoming traffic). Obviously this should be done when there is no actual oncoming traffic and when you have plenty of visibility, and should be done as quickly as possible. Do not ever overtake by pulling off the road to the left, Australian drivers won't anticipate this even if the shoulder is sealed and it is very very dangerous to pull at speed onto an unsealed shoulder. It is illegal in both cases.

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. Typically, rental car companies do not allow their cars to be taken off sealed roads, even if the unsealed road is an official minor road.

Mobile (cell) phone coverage will be highly intermittant even on relatively major highways unless you are near a population center. At present CDMA phones are more likely to get reception than GSM phones.

Driving in Australia

Outback driving

If you are driving in the outback, be prepared for anything. There is little traffic, so it is unlikely that anyone will be able to stop and help you should you break down. There are few towns/gas stations etc, so motorists need to make sure that they carry adequate food, water and especially spare fuel. The interior of Australia is a true desert, so if your vehicle has no air-conditioning, you could suffer temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit)

Do not expect your mobile phone to work if you are in the outback - while efforts have been made to 'cover' the populated areas, large areas of the country do not have service. If you really go to the back of beyond it might be a good idea to buy or rent a two-way shortwave radio (the Royal Flying Doctor Service might have them available).

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 you are stranded. 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 then 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, especially when they are filled with bulldust (very fine sand particles) on sandy roads. 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 over the steering wheel. In most cases a speed of 70-80 km/h is a happy medium; not too slow and not too fast.

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.

Driving in Australia

Beware speed limits

The road rules are strictly enforced in Australia, especially speed limits. The strictest place for road rule enforcement is Victoria - if you exceed the speed limit by any amount (even 3km/h) you can expect to get fined. This applies in the country areas of the state as well. Speed limits vary depending on road conditions, area and state. Speed limits are clearly signposted at regular intervals so keep an eye out for them.

In urban areas the speed limits change often enough to be very confusing even to locals. The general limit on a standard road is 60km/h, but in sidestreets and residential areas it has been lowered to 50km/h, and 'school zones' have a 40km/h limit during school hours. Permanent, automatic speed cameras are becoming increasingly common in all the capital cities, so be careful.

In country areas the speed limit varies from state to state. The Northern Territory is the only part of the country with NO maximum speed limit on the highways. In South Australia and Victoria the maximum for country areas and major freeways is 110km/h.

Driving in Australia

City driving and parking

Traffic in Australia's major cities can be as bad as in any city around the world. As in any other place, it pays to avoid, if at all possible, driving in or around the Central Business District (CBD) during peak times when everyone is trying to get from or to work. If you have a UBD or Gregory's streetguide, which is provided with every rental car in Australia, avoid roads that have many red dots. They're stoplights.

Major capitals usually have good public transport within the CBD itself, and this is preferable for short distances.

Cities often have council operated "side of the road" type parking that often involves a fee payable into the meter next to the spot (or more frequently these days, a machine a few spots down which operates for multiple spots). 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. There will often be commercial parking lots which charge on an hourly basis, and their fee often depends on the time of day and week you are parking.

One additional hazard unique to driving in Melbourne's CBD and the inner suburbs are trams. Melbourne is known for its extensive tram (US speakers may know trams as streetcars) network. There are three tram-related rules which may not be immediately obvious. Normally, cars drive over the tram tracks, and there will be a dotted yellow lane marker left of the "tram lane". The dotted yellow marker means cars are permitted to drive in the tram lane. Sometimes, there will be a solid yellow line next to the tram lane. This indicates that cars are not permitted to drive in the tram lane. In this case, there is often a sign overhead, in the gantry above the road that indicates possible times when cars are not permitted to drive in that lane. Note also that tram passengers have right of way when crossing the road to or from a tram. So you can't drive a vehicle past a stopped tram.

Perhaps the most infamous amongst Australians, and Melburnians in particular, is the "hook turn" - it is unique in Australia to Melbourne's CBD. As almost all roads in Melbourne's CBD have tram tracks, turning right (remember, we drive on the left) suddenly presents a problem, as while you are waiting to turn, you would be in the tram lane, holding up several trams. To get around this problem, the "hook turn" was invented. This involves turning right from the left lane. To execute a hook turn:

  1. Approach the intersection in the left lane, and indicate to turn right.
  2. Proceed into the intersection as far left as possible (avoiding the pedestrian crossing). Moving across until you end up being perpendicular to traffic which is heading in the direction you want to be (who are waiting at a red light).
  3. Observe the traffic lights to your right. Once green, you turn to your right and proceed as normal.
Driving hazards: a road train and road victimDriving hazards: a road train and road victim
Driving hazards: a road train and road victim
Driving in Australia

Road trains

Road trains are a special hazard on Australian roads. These leviathans can reach lengths of up to 50 metres, with up to three 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. If they have to do that (but don't really count on it) they won't slow down and your car will be showered with dust and stones, possibly with a smashed windscreen as a result. If you drive a lightweight vehicle, be prepared to be rocked sideways as a result of the air displacement. On gravel roads you really should stop and pull as far left as possible to protect you and your car. Some older caravans have imploded due to the air suction which follows them when passing in the opposite direction cause by the diffrence in air pressure inside the caravan to outside so again, stay well clear.

A road train coming up behind you should often be allowed to pass as well, since some drivers don't obey the posted speed limits. 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.

Driving in Australia


Australia is the land of kangaroos, emus, feral camels and wild horses, not to mention cattle. Normally they just sit or stand by the road, but when you drive along many of them decide to have a peek at the other side. They love to test your reaction time by doing that right in front of your car. Drive carefully when you spot these big animals and be ready to use your brakes suddenly. It beats a (nearly-)dead animal and a wrecked vehicle. Bear in mind however that taking evasive action in a car can also lead to fatalities, so if the choice is between hitting the animal or potentially locking the brakes and losing control of the vehicle? Say bye bye Skippy...

Surprisingly, a wombat, which may only be half a metre long, can also wreck a vehicle, as they are heavy little creatures. Watch out for the signs that indicate animals crossing, and slow down.

A lot of accidents occur at night when some animals are more active and most are less visible. Most car hire firms impose a curfew on driving after sunset in Western Australia and the Northern Territory for good reason. Try and be at your destination before nightfall in remote parts of these regions.

Many Australian vehicles in the bush sport "bull bars" (known locally as kangaroo bars or roo bars), a rigid steel frame, in front of the radiator. These are to protect the driver in the event of a collision with an animal. They do not discriminate and add to the risks on the road. Some vehicles are also fitted with a "Shu-Roo" which, when attached to the front of a moving vehicle creates a loud whistling sound (not audible to humans) that is supposed to scare kangaroos away.

Another problem common to Australian roads arises when dangerous insects disturb drivers by being unexpectantly present inside the vechicle. Many major traffic incidents have been blamed on such occurances. This phenomenon is known in some states as the 'Huntsmen's surprise' after the somewhat fearsome looking, yet harmless Huntsmen spider.

Driving in Australia

Staying awake

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 on many through routes and fine weather 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 bill boards 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.

Driving in Australia

Drinking and driving

Under no circumstances should you drive while under the influence of alcohol. Quite aside from the obvious safety risks, Australia has frequent breath testing along major routes, and it is considered an extremely serious offence.

Driving in Australia


If you encounter a roundabout and are from a country that doesn't have them in great number, like the USA, here's a quick guide: The big rule: Always give way to vehicles on the roundabout. This just involves looking right and in some cases across, if the roundabout is small. As you approach the roundabout, look for the arrows on the road, if you're on a multiple-lane road. These will tell you in which direction every lane goes. Turn on your indicator to the left if you intend to go left, don't turn it on if you're going straight through, and right if you turn right or do a U-Turn. To leave the roundabout, simply indicate to the left about ninety degrees before your turn-off. Almost nobody indicates (especially in New South Wales). Driving roundabouts gets more sensible every time you do it.

Look here:

Driving in Australia

Wet season

In the north of Australia, summer is the rainy season, known locally as the Wet. Many remote communities 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.

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!

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, although those who follow the rule of informing local police where they are going will probably be okay. Stay with the vehicle, unless it's rapidly sinking underwater..

Driving in Australia

See also

Driving in Australia


  • Whereis ( - a useful resource for planning routes, and can give you a rough estimate of travel times.
  • Telstra Mobile coverage ( - maps of mobile coverage in Australia.

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