Driving in Australia


Driving in Australia


Rule of the Road

Traffic in Australia drives on the left side of the road, in common with other British Commonwealth countries.



Statistics (year 2007 figures)


UK comparison

Annual fatalities



Registered motor vehicles



Motorisation rate, (motor vehicles / 1,000 population)



Fatality rate, (deaths / 10,000 motor vehicles)



Fatality risk, (road deaths / 100,000 population)



Fatality quotient, (fatality rate x fatality risk)



Fatalities / 1,000 km road 



Road length, km



Paved roads, %



Road density, (road length km / land area km2)



Vehicle density, (motor vehicles / km)



Population density, (population / km2)




Statistics Summary
Australia's roads have a very similar safety record to that of UK. Although Australia has a higher motorisation rate coupled with very low population and vehicle densities, it is surprising that the fatality rate is not lower.
With a population of just over 20,000,000 and almost 15,000,000 motor vehicles, this places Australia at the 14th highest vehicle ownership rate in the world, UK is in 29th place. But when the number of vehicles is compared with the length of roads, the vehicle density is relatively low, resulting in relatively quiet roads, and having the effect that Australia is one of the most pleasant countries in which to drive, even in the cities. And connecting the cities, Australia is home to the longest single highway in the world, Highway 1, the coastal highway, which encircles the country at 12,200 km long, and which every tourist will probably use at least in part.





Driving Environment

The tropical line of Capricorn runs almost through the centre of Australia, so the northern half is tropical, the southern half sub-tropical. The climate in Australia is typically warm and sunny, although snow does fall on some of the mountains. Most of the centre of Oz is dry desert, although parts of Northern Territory and northern Queensland become seriously flooded during the rainy season, such that not even a 4x4 may get through. However, most of the highways are a joy to drive on, well engineered and with an excellent quality surface.





Driver Behaviour.

Driving in Australia is very calm and relaxed. Drivers here appear to comply with speed limits and other driving regulations, they don't rush, and are very courteous, generally much more courteous than UK drivers. Australian drivers in general are some of the best in the world.




Although the country has its own national motor industry, Holden (owned by GMC) is strongly influenced by Japanese car imports, resulting in the vehicle's controls following the same pattern as Japan and much of Asia. That is, although the steering wheel is on the right, the same as UK, the direction indicator switch follows the Japanese preference of being on the right of the steering wheel with the wiper switch on the left.

In Melbourne there are trams which share the road with other traffic.

Road trains are common on many routes outside of cities. Many are merely 'B-doubles' a tractive unit with 2 semi-trailers, these are common within cities also. Others comprise an articulated semi-trailer hauling a drawbar trailer. However, there are many combinations of coupling semi-trailers and trailers, and they are a common sight everywhere.






Speed Limits.

Speed is measured in km/h. Speed signage is the same as the ISO (European) system, and all numbers are in European digits.

Speed limits in towns vary with many limits of only 40 km/h. Main roads in town typically have a limit of just 60 km/h.

Most state limits are 110 km/h. Until recently in Northern Territory outside of towns and villages the 'End of Speed Limit' sign meant exactly what it said, i.e. there was no upper speed limit. Unfortunately some abused this by travelling at up to 300 km/h resulting in many fatalities, so Northern Territory has recently imposed a state limit of 120 km/h. However, with distances of 1,000 km between towns, policing this is not easy.



Traffic Signals.

Traffic signals follow the traditional 4-part sequence: green > amber > red > red & amber > green. Flashing amber is used at pedestrian crossings. There is a 'tidal flow' lane control system signalled by green arrows and red crosses in operation on Sydney Harbour Bridge, ensure you are in the correct lane appropriate to the time of day as signalled.

Below a signal head, an octagonal stop sign displaying 3 vertical black discs means you must stop if all the traffic lights are out.






Road signs.

Road signs are a strange mixture of ISO (European) and USA systems.

Most of the regulatory, prohibitory, obligatory, directional, and advice signs follow the ISO standard system of shapes and colours. However, some signs within the same categories of prohibitory and obligatory are both worded and symbolised, i.e. a 'right turn prohibited' may also be worded below the ISO sign. Some other signs are only worded instead of symbolised, following USA styles, e.g. 'keep left' is merely worded without a symbol.

However, all hazard signs are as the USA system having a yellow diamond background with a black symbol.

All worded signs are in English, and all numbers are in European digits.





Road markings.

White retroreflective paint is used for all markings. Non-reflective Bott's dots, raised ceramic delineators, are also used to delineate some multilane roads. Retroreflective road studs (cats eyes) are commonly used, but at continuous double white lines yellow reflectors are used in pairs on each side of the lines. Hazard posts with retro-reflective white, red, or amber panels are also used following normal conventions.

In cities it is common to see 'T2 Transit Lane', reserved for vehicles having two or more occupants.






Roundabouts are conventional and present no problems, circulating traffic from the right has priority. Many roundabouts are multi-lane, and lane discipline is a strong point of the Australian driver; spiralling off the roundabout in the style of a UK helical roundabout is frowned upon.



Generally, all junctions are well signed and marked. Where a graded (gravel) road meets a tarmac road, traffic on the tarmac always has priority.





Pedestrian Crossings.

Zebra crossings are common in towns, drivers must stop if pedestrians are crossing.


Railway Crossings.

There are numerous railway level crossings, marked well in advance by signs, also marked on the main road where the railway crosses a side-road near the junction. Many crossings are also signalled with red wig-wag lights, but typically there are no gates or barriers of any type. Melbourne has an extensive tram network, in which the tram tracks run along many main roads.



Highways and dual carriageways of high quality are common in and surrounding major cities. As distance increases outwards from each city the highways generally have fewer lanes in each direction.


City Driving.

Roads around the cities are well marked with a good surface and in most locations they are also of generous width. In Melbourne watch out for trams, sometimes the trams have their own lane, sometimes it is a shared lane where you drive along the tram tracks. Some places you will be merging with a tram lane. Caution, trams cannot steer, and whilst their brakes are adequate their wheels are steel on a steel rail, so their braking distance is rather longer than a car with rubber tyres. Don't overtake a tram then move in front of it then suddenly stop! See also Melbourne's 'hook turn', below.






Rural Roads.

The primary roads between towns and cities are typically 3-lane roads which are marked to permit 2 lanes in one direction whilst a single in the other direction. After a couple of kilometres the use of the centre lane is reversed for the other direction. Drivers are well-disciplined and use this system well, being very patient where overtaking is not permitted. However, most drivers appear to travel at the same speed so overtaking is rarely required.

On all outback roads, both surfaced and unsurfaced, it is the normal etiquette that every driver acknowledges every other by raising the left index finger from the wheel as the vehicles pass.





Unsurfaced roads.

There are many thousands of kilometres of unsurfaced 'graded' i.e. gravel roads, made by rolling and compacting gravel. The surface varies from very good to severely corrugated. After rain some may become washed out and impassable. The maximum safe speed for any graded surface is 80 km/h where the surface is straight, flat, and in good condition, but bends must be taken much slower. In Northern Territory 2wd vehicles are not permitted on many roads, and in the wet season not even a 4x4 may be able to get through on a large number of roads. Travel within the Northern Territory or northern Queensland during or just after the rainy season is not advisable.




Night Driving.

Night driving is not recommended outside the cities where there are no street lights. The maximum safe speed for night driving is no more than 60 km/h, and often less, otherwise it will be impossible to stop when wildlife jumps in front of a vehicle. Kangaroos are large, they tend to be nocturnal, and appear in large groups on the roadside from just before sunset and throughout the night, and if struck at speed have sufficient inertia to penetrate the windscreen and kill the occupants of a car.






On-street parking is normal, bays are commonly marked. Payment is common in larger towns but typically free elsewhere, and the maximum stay times regardless of whether paid or free are marked in either minutes or hours abbreviated in a simple code.

In many towns the on-street bays are marked for reverse-herringbone parking, it is an offence to drive forwards into these parking bays.






Something to watch out for …

In Melbourne, if planning to turn right across tram lines, you must actually approach in the LEFT lane and make a 'hook turn'. It may seem very strange, but on a green signal move forward and wait well into the junction keeping in the left lane, this leaves the right hand lane free for through traffic and the tram tracks clear for trams. Wait until the lights change to green for the crossing traffic so you know when you can safely cross the tram lines.






Something else to watch out for …

Road Trains. These multi-trailer lorries having up to 8 trailers and over 30 axles travel long distances at the legal maximum speeds, the trailers follow bends very well, but the many tyres can sometimes throw up a stone which could damage your windscreen. On seeing one of these road trains approaching on a single carriageway road, it is recommended to move off the road onto the shoulder and stop whilst it passes. If you should catch up behind one of these, overtaking is NOT recommended. Instead, pull over, have a break, and drive on later so you don't have to follow it for hours.


©Keith Lane 2009