One of the most important thing for visitors to New Zealand to remember is that we drive on the left side of the road. And of course that means if you are hiring a vehicle to drive here, the steering wheel will be on the right hand side of the car, not the left, which you may be used to. People from countries who drive on the right are a major source of traffic accidents in New Zealand, particularly in the first few days after they arrive in the country.
So what else do you need to know?
Can I use my driver's licence in New Zealand? Yes, you can use an international drivers licence to rent a car or motor home and drive in New Zealand, or your licence from your home country. If your licence is not in English, you will need to bring a translation with you. You also need to have your licence on you at all times when you are driving. Check with your rental company if you have any specific concerns about this. You need to be a confident and experienced driver, who is used to driving at open road speeds of 100km per hour (or slightly more in some cases). There may be less cars on the road in New Zealand than you are used to, but the traffic often moves faster and the conditions may be very different to what you experience at home. If you usually drive in a heavily populated city where traffic never moves faster than 40km per hour, it may be wise to appoint a more experienced driver in your group, or to consider other modes of transport around the country.
What are the road surfaces like? Road surfaces around New Zealand vary. Most often they are sealed bitumen which means they have plenty of grip in wet or frosty conditions. However outside of the cities we also have plenty of shingle roads , also known as gravel or metal, which you need to take particular care on. Drive more slowly on gravel roads, and also be aware that in the country areas of New Zealand, the edges of sealed roads are also usually gravel and can catch you unawares if you are not prepared for a different road surface.
What about seat belts? It's compulsory for everyone travelling in cars to wear seat belts, whether you are in the front seat or the back, driver or passenger. If you are travelling with children under the age of seven years, you must have them in an approved car seat or restraint. You should be able to rent suitable car seats with your vehicle.
Miles or Kilometres? New Zealand uses the metric system, which means every road speed sign you see will be in kilometres, not miles per hour. Your rental vehicle will also have a speedometer that shows kilometres per hour, rather than miles. As a guide, the open road limit of 100km is equal to 60 miles per hour.
What are the speed limits? The maximum speed limits in cities or towns is 50km per hour, and on the open road, 100km per hour. Look out for speed limit signs with a red border - keep to this speed until you see anything different. You may sometimes need to go more slowly, for roadworks or other reasons.
What do the traffic lights mean? At a set of traffic lights, you will see Green - which means go, Red - which means all traffic (even left turning) must stop and Orange - which means you should stop if you can safely do so.
Give way or stop? When you come to an intersection not controlled by traffic lights, you will see either a Give Way sign (triangular) or a Red Stop sign (octagonal). If there is a Give Way sign, you need to give way to approaching traffic, and if there is nothing on the road, you can continue on your way. If there is a Red Stop sign, this is a compulsory stop, so you must stop even if there is no traffic on the road. Once you have checked all is clear, you can then proceed.
What about winter conditions? If you are driving on New Zealand roads in winter, you should carry snow chains for your car, particularly if you are driving in the South Island or anywhere you are planning to visit ski areas or mountainous locations. Look out for daily weather forecasts for the places you plan to travel to, and check with sites like the Automobile Association's Roadwatch site, which warns of locations and roads that may be impassable due to snow or other conditions. Even in four wheel drive vehicles, you will often come across situations where chains are required to prevent slipping on ice or snow. Again, check with your car rental company about adding them to your winter booking.
Visitors to New Zealand often underestimate how quickly the weather can change (four seasons in one day sometimes) and how important it is to be well prepared for all conditions.
Parts of New Zealand are known for having high rainfall, so you also need to be careful driving in wet weather. Drive more slowly than the recommended speed limit, be conscious of large areas of water that might lie across the road, and avoid driving through any large puddles where you cannot gauge the depth (by seeing other cars drive through safely). Getting water in your engine may be enough to stop your trip right there.
Where can I find more information on New Zealand road rules? The best place to visit is the NZTA website, where you can find the most up to date road rules for driving in New Zealand.