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Australian road rules: Everything you need to know

Driver education Safety Car Advice
When it comes to enforcing road rules around the country, each state and territory is slightly different.
When it comes to enforcing road rules around the country, each state and territory is slightly different.

Obviously, you know your road rules, right? You’re licensed, you drive on the roads just about every day, so it stands to reason you know what the rules you’re playing by are. Surely? 

The fact it, of course, that there are an awful lot of them, and that while you’re no doubt cogniscent of the obvious ones, some of the Australian road rules might not be entirely obvious, or easy to recall. 

And then there are those rules you’ve always wondered about, but never quite known for sure; let’s call them the road-rule urban myths, like the idea that it’s illegal, even in this beach-blessed country, to drive in thongs.

Fear not, because we are here to help you with all things road-rule related, and to bring you up to date, or up to legal speed if you will, with the road rules of this country, and its many different and individualistic states and territories, and how they differ.

The basics

If you’ve ever driven along the Great Ocean Road, or up near Port Douglas, where we get a lot of overseas drivers, you may have seen the “Drive on Left in Australia” signs, with helpful diagrammatic arrows. This is because we drive on the left, which is not the way that a staggering two thirds of the world goes about it. 

We would say this makes them wrong, but the percentages might suggest otherwise.

You must be 17 years of age to hold a driver’s licence in Australia and you must know the important fact that the “100” on a speed sign refers to kilometres per hour, not miles, because we area metric-speed country.

Speed limits vary from state to state, and seemingly from day to day in some places, but everyone now agrees that the national top-speed limit for dual-lane carriageways is 110km/h. Everyone that is, except the Northern Territory, which is not a State, to be fair, and likes to make its own rules.

Rather intelligently, the NT authorities have long held that it is wise not to fall asleep by driving slowly over long distances of ram-rod straight roads with little traffic, and for many years there were sections of road out there in the outback with no limits at all. Open season, go as fast as you like.

This approach to speed, in a country where we are regularly told that Speed Kills, has become a political football, and recently the NT was pulled back into line and shut down a trial of limitless sections of road, which means that its highways now have a limit of… 130km/h. Which is obviously not the national limit of 110km/h. 

Confusingly this means that the part of the Stuart Highway that runs through South Australia is 110km/h limited, but as soon as it crosses the NT border it magically raises to 130km/h.

The limit that almost everyone agrees on, however, is at the bottom, because school zones around the country must be traversed, with great care, at 40km/h (except for South Australia, see below).

Most built-up areas in the country have a 50km/h limit, although sometimes this may rise to 60km/h. 

Speeding is extremely frowned upon in Australia and under Victorian Road Rules you can be fined for going as little as 2km/h over the limit, or 62km/h in a 60km/h zone. This is sometimes described as absurd or ridiculous. But not by Victorian politicians or officials.

The driver of any vehicle is liable for

and for any seat-belt infringements, which means it’s your job - or your Uber driver’s job - to make sure everyone is wearing a seatbelt before you set off. Seatbelt laws are uniform and sensible, and no, you may not ride in the back of a ute, or the boot of a car, or the back of a van, without being properly restrained. Because that’s just silly.

It is also illegal to drive while under the influence of too much alcohol - defined as 0.05 grams of alcohol for every 100 millilitres of blood, and we have random breath testing all over the country to catch anyone stupid enough to try it.

Driving under the influence of drugs is rather more grey area, at least in terms of how much of any driven substance has to be in your body, but basically if it’s an illegal drug, and the police catch you with one of their lick-the-stick drug-testing kits (which is increasingly becoming part of the roadside, random-testing program, particularly in Victoria), you will face large fines and loss of licence, just like drink drivers.

Nationally, of course, our most often ignored, and rarely policed (although it is punishable by fines and demerit points) rule is that you must keep left on a dual carriageway, unless overtaking. Sitting in the right lane while driving slowly seems to be a national hobby.

NSW Road Rules

While NSW is not quite as hard on the enforcement of speeding as Victoria - speed cameras are clearly identified, with multiple warnings, rather than hidden - it has long been a leader in cracking down on mobile-phone use in cars.

NSW was the first state to legislate against using your phone in an unsafe fashion while driving and it is now illegal to use a device in any capacity unless it is mounted in a bracket within the car. A surprising number of people don’t seem to be aware of this law.

NSW was also the state that came up with the law in Australia that says you must give way to all vehicles within a roundabout, rather than just those coming from your right.

In NSW, you can also be fined for not locking your vehicle. And yes, this would, strictly speaking, include running into the service station to pay for fuel, because the rule specifies that the car must be locked if you are further than 3m away from it. 

Strangely, it is also illegal to drive through a puddle and splash people who are waiting for a bus. But if it’s any other kind of pedestrian you’re keen on splashing, there seems to be a loophole. 

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the traditional, laconic, country-resident tradition of waving out the window to other motorists as you pass is, strictly, illegal, because no part of your body can be outside your window, under NSW Road Rules. This also means fat-arming is a legal no-no.

Victorian Road Rules

The authorities in Victoria are focused on achieving the seemingly impossible road-toll figure of zero, even if that involves reducing all speed limits to zero as well. The focus on speed, and enforcement, is noticeable, and lots of speed zones, even on four-lane wide motorways, that would be 100km/h in other states will be a strict 80 in Victoria. 

And watch out for hidden speed cameras, they are everywhere.

While it is generally illegal to make a U-turn at traffic lights in Australia, Victorian authorities permit the practice, providing there is not a sign specifically forbidding it.

Melbourne also has something called “hook turns”, but they are too complex to explain here. Or anywhere.

QLD Road Rules

Unlike some other States, you are required to be able to produce your licence and provide you name and current address if you are pulled over by a police officer.

One very Queensland-specific rule is that you must give way to “restive horses”, meaning any horse that looks a bit frisky, basically.

If the rider of said horse gives you a signal you must give way to the animal and you must not move your car until “there is no reasonable likelihood that the noise of the motor, or the movement of the vehicle, will aggravate the restiveness of the horse.”

Clearly there are still a lot of cowboys in the sunshine state.

WA Road Rules

One real trap for visitors to the West is that the State is fond of using mobile speed cameras, which generally sit on a little tripod rather than in a van, as in other States. 

The main hazard to watch out for in Western Australia, aside from the boredom of driving vast distances, are the road trains, which can be as much as 50m long, and both difficult and dangerous to overtake. 

South Australian Road Rules

One major difference you need to be aware of when visiting South Australia is the speed limit you must observe when driving past emergency vehicles.

Since 2014, it has been law in the southern state to slow down to an absolute crawl - 25km/h, in fact - when passing through an “emergency service speed zone”. 

Even driving past at 40km/h, which is the required speed in Victoria, Western Australia and, more recently NSW, would see you copping a fine for doing 15km/h over the limit.

It should come as little surprise, then, that South Australia takes similarly strict approach to school zones and crossings, which also carry a 25km/h speed limit.

And you must slow to that speed near any school zone if a child is present, even if it’s outside school hours. 

ACT road rules

The ACT fairly closely follows NSW road rules, but has particularly strict laws around driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 

You can be issued with an Immediate Licence Suspension for failing a drug or alcohol roadside test, or refusing to take one.

TAS road rules

Tasmania is a bit different, and likes it that way, which might be way the state replaced all double unbroken lines with a single unbroken one, although all the same rules about not overtaking apply.

Tasmanians also have a 'zip merge rule’, which simplifies this seemingly difficult task by staying that the vehicle in front where two lanes merge has the right of way, no matter what lane it is in.

The state also enforces the “keep left unless overtaking rule” on multi-lane roads, anywhere that the speed limit is more than 80km/h.

Parking laws

Aside from the rules about not leaving your car unattended, which is essentially a parking law, it’s important to note that you must park with your nose facing in the direction of travel. So no ducking over to the other side and parking faced the wrong way.

Also be careful to take note of signage about whether you need to nose, or reverse, into particular spaces. And, in country towns, respect the angled-parking rules.

Urban myths and car-horn rules

Some people seem to believe that it’s a myth that you’re not allowed to toot your horn at people to say goodbye, or hello, or ‘I loathe you as a human being’, but the fact is that, unlike New York City or entire Asian countries, using your horn for such general communication is illegal in Australia, and can cost you.

You can be fined if you use your horn for any reason other than warning other road users, or scaring off animals.

As for the much-discussed myth about driving in thongs, the fact is that it is legal to do so, but it’s actually preferable not to. Safety wise, you’re better off kicking off your thongs, or your high heels, and driving bare feet. Which is also, in case you were wondering, completely legal.

What do you think is Australia's strangest road rule, and what rule do you think we should introduce? Tell us in the comments section below.

Stephen Corby
Contributing Journalist
Stephen Corby stumbled into writing about cars after being knocked off the motorcycle he’d been writing about by a mob of angry and malicious kangaroos. Or that’s what he says, anyway. Back in the early 1990s, Stephen was working at The Canberra Times, writing about everything from politics to exciting Canberra night life, but for fun he wrote about motorcycles. After crashing a bike he’d borrowed, he made up a colourful series of excuses, which got the attention of the motoring editor, who went on to encourage him to write about cars instead. The rest, as they say, is his story. Reviewing and occasionally poo-pooing cars has taken him around the world and into such unexpected jobs as editing TopGear Australia magazine and then the very venerable Wheels magazine, albeit briefly. When that mag moved to Melbourne and Stephen refused to leave Sydney he became a freelancer, and has stayed that way ever since, which allows him to contribute, happily, to CarsGuide.
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