If you’re a tourist or backpacker in Australia for a limited time and you want to see more than just the big cities, you’ll soon learn that a car is the quickest and easiest way to get out of town and check out some our beaches, mountains and country towns. Thankfully, there are some cheap and easy options for accessing cars on a short term basis. There are plenty of hire car options, but it’s often cheaper to join a car-sharing platform like Car Next Door that lets you borrow cars by the hour or day.
Once you’ve found a car and planned your roadtrip, you’ll need to familiarise yourself with Australian road rules.
General driving rules
Drive on the left - This is the biggest and most important difference from most other countries. In Australia, you always drive on the left side of the road rather than the right.
Speed is measured in kilometres - In Australia we use kilometres, rather than miles, to measure distance. This means speed limits, speedometres in cars, and distance signage is all in kilometres.
Seatbelts are mandatory - All drivers and passengers must be wearing seatbelts at all times. There are big fines for breaking this rule (not to mention the safety risks) so always buckle up!
Don’t drink or take drugs and drive - You must have a blood alcohol concentration of less than 0.05% and must not be under the influence of any illicit substances while driving a car in Australia. Police regularly conduct random testing and big penalties apply for offending.
Don’t touch your phone while you’re driving - In most states it’s illegal to touch a phone while you’re driving, unless it’s in an approved cradle or phone holder. If you need to use your phone for anything, it’s safest to do it before you start driving or pull over first.
You can't turn left on a red light - Unlike the UK, US or Canada where you can turn on a red light provided the way is clear, in Australia you need to wait for the light to turn green before turning. Some intersections in New South Wales do allow this, but they are clearly signed. If there's no sign permitting it, you can't turn on a red light.
The speed limit is 50km/hour in residential up areas - You won't see speed limit signs on every street, particularly in built-up areas. The speed limit in a residential street is 50km/hour, unless otherwise indicated. If you're in the suburbs and you don't see a sign, assume the limit is 50km/hour.
Pedestrians sometimes have right of way - At some intersections, pedestrians will get a green light at the same time as turning traffic. Make sure you check if there are any pedestrians crossing the intersection, because they have right of way. You'll need to wait for any pedestrians to cross the road before you can finish turning.
Always park ‘facing the direction of traffic’ - This is a rule that even a lot of Australians aren’t aware of, but it is enforced. Parking ‘facing the direction of traffic’ means that when you park the car on the side of the road, it needs to be parked facing the direction it would be if it were driving down that road. In Australia where we drive on the left side of the road, this means that the passenger side of the car needs to be against the kerb.
Don’t park too close to an intersection or across a driveway - The specific laws for these rules vary slightly from state-to-state, but as a general rule you shouldn’t park closer than 20 metres from an intersection or so that you are blocking access to a driveway.
Don’t park too close to a bus stop, fire hydrant or post box - The specific rules vary from state to state, but a general guide is to avoid parking within 1 metre of a fire hydrant, within 3 metres of post box, or within 20 metres of a bus stop.
Park according to the signs - Parking signs in Australia can be a little tricky to understand, but our handy explainer will help you make sense of them. It’s important to always check for parking signs and take the time to make sure you’re allowed to park there before walking away, or you could be facing a hefty fine!
As well as parking signs, there are other road signs that you need to understand. This explainer covers most of the road signs you’ll see in Australia, but here’s our quick guide to some of the most common.
Speed limits - The number indicated in the red circle is the maximum speed you can travel along this stretch of road.
Advisory speed limits - If you see an orange speed limit sign, this is a recommended speed limit for a particular stretch of road. You’ll usually see these just before a tight corner in the mountains or steep hill. This sign is recommending you slow to the indicated speed in order to safely negotiate the corner or hill. It’s not a legal speed limit but it’s a good idea to slow down when you see one of these!
Give way - If you see this sign before an intersection, slow down and be prepared to stop and give way to any oncoming traffic. You only need to come to a complete stop if you need to give way.
Stop - This sign means you must come to a complete stop and check for oncoming traffic before proceeding.
U Turn - The laws about U turns vary from state-to-state, but wherever you are it’s important to look for signs. In New South Wales and Queensland, you can only perform a U turn at an intersection if there is a ‘U turn permitted’ sign. In Victoria it’s the opposite: you can perform a U turn at any intersection, unless there is a ‘No U turn’ sign.
Wildlife signs - If you’re driving in rural areas, you’ll probably see signs like the ones below with a picture of an Australian animal on them. This is to warn you to look out for the native wildlife in the area. Having a run in with a kangaroo or wombat is very unfortunate for you, the car and, of course, the poor animal (trust us!) so take care when you see these signs.