Driving in Australia

By Ray Mosher

The first thing an American notices about driving in Australia is that, like Britain, Aussies drive on the left side of the road. Pedals have the proper orientation, but shifting becomes a left-handed operation. Even the turn signals and wiper stalks are switched to the other side of the steering wheel. Driving on the other side is by far the biggest adjustment to make. Not remembering can have serious consequences! Once in the car, with the wheel on the right side, it's easy to remember to keep left, but it takes a while before you consistently climb into the right door! It takes months to be able to signal or wipe the windscreen without thinking which side is which.

Once rolling on the correct side of the road things become a bit more familiar. Roads are mostly of good design and repair. Australia has a land area equivalent to the lower 48, but has only 16 million people and most of the population resides in the 8 capital cities. The Northern Territory contains 1/6 of Australia's area, but has only 1% of its population. As a result, there are vast areas with few people and few roads. In the populous southeast, roads are plentiful, though many are "unsealed" (dirt). There are a few roads of interstate quality forming incomplete links between Melbourne, Sydney, and Canberra, otherwise, it is two lanes. There is not the infrastructure to make cross country motoring the effortless wonder Americans enjoy. Particularly frustrating is the lack of city freeways. To transit most major cities, you must drive in stop-and-go traffic on two lane roads. Like the rest of the civilized world, Australia uses the metric system.

Speed limits are reasonable with open highway limits being 100-110 km/h, though the Northern Territory sticks to the "safe and reasonable" unlimited speed once enjoyed in the American West. It is quite enjoyable to be able to cruise under good road and weather conditions at a speed you're comfortable with, not one created by a bureaucrat with a chauffeur. You're usually safe from harassment when travelling less than 10 km/h over the limit. But at 15 over, things are different. Fines are heavy and the cops display little humor. Radar detectors are strictly forbidden. The latest rage has been the use of speed cameras. It is generally understood that these are used more for revenue than to improve safety and there is an effort to ban them. Manned radar setups are well hidden and they use unmarked cars. Watch out too for RBT--Random Breath Testing--a roadblock where you talk into an alcohol measuring device. Less than 1% of those tested exceed the limit, so they are not catching many, but they seem to think it is a good deterrent. With a BAC limit of .05 (that's sniffing a wine cork), high fines and license suspension for a first offense, driving while even not very intoxicated is serious. In over a year, I've only been stopped once (cold sober), but it's quite humiliating. Not doubt, this has made big sales in pubs of low alcohol (but very tasty) beer. As in the Unites States, they don't seem to realize it's not the individual with less than .1 BAC who cause accidents. The strangest law? In Melbourne you make a right turn from the left lane!

Cars are different too. There is a good mixture of domestic Fords and Holdens (General Motors). And, now there are many new Mitsubishis, Toyotas, and other imports. You have to really want an import. On top of the 15% minimum sales tax for all cars, you pay an import duty of 30%--even more for cars that exceed a "luxury" threshold. This makes the imports quite dear. Despite the duty, the dramatic quality advantage of the imports made them very popular. U.S. models are very scarce. Here you can get the tiny Mazda 121, Subaru Sherpa, Honda City, and other cars that are too small to pass U.S. safety standards. Economy cars aside, the standard Ford Falcon and General Motors Holden Commodore (which combined account for half of new car sales) are similar in size and features to a Taurus or Lumina.

Australia exports two models to the U.S.--a Mitsubishi wagon and the ragtop Capri. Like most products in Australia, there are fewer choices of cars, especially domestic built. White is the most popular color and cars have different options than Americans are used to. Most cheaper cars have 2 speaker radios and none have cup holders. Airbags and ABS are just beginning to be offered. At least they don't have mouse track automatic seatbelts! Cars are often fitted with stone shields to protect paint and headlights due to the large number of dirt roads. In the open, and at dusk or at night, one runs the serious risk of hitting a kangaroo. This has led to many installing huge driving lights and bull bars (cow catchers). Four-by-four trucks are common and sometimes are outfitted with snorkels for crossing flooded roads, quite common in the northern wet season. Cars are older than in the U.S. with the average age over 10 years. High initial cost and a climate that does not promote rust helps. With cars and everything else, they tend to fix, rather than replace. Most Aussies know which years of each car to avoid and what the faults are of each make, model, and year. Older cars are actually more prone to theft than newer ones, as parts demands increases. Steering wheel "clubs" are common on cars you wouldn't think anyone would bother stealing. The car factories are now installing as standard equipment alarm systems and heavy duty locks to counter the high auto theft rate.

Driving in the outback has its own risks. You can get to most places without a 4x4, as long as you don't mind a dirt road and don't go in the north during the rainy season. Night driving is a risk, with kangaroos, emus (ostrich-type birds), cattle, and even water buffalo and camels, each having the potential to make a mess of more than your paint. Fuel is often unavailable late at night.

Australian drivers are reasonably skilled, though timid. I've learned to almost never give anyone a break in traffic, since they won't take it! They coexist well with the bicycle commuters. Gasoline is expensive, equivalent to U.S. $2 per U.S. gallon and upwards in rural areas of the national capital. Consequently, people carpool and take public transport or ride their "pushbikes". This is also due to the lower amount of disposable income and the high costs of cars themselves (my Capri cost more in Oz than in the U.S.), insurance, and registration.

Australia is not in love with the automobile the way Americans are. It is less of a fashion accessory or personality statement and more of an appliance. With the high cost and poor selection of exciting cars, it's understandable.

Driving, like many other aspects of Australia, is different than in the U.S., but not so different as to cause a big problem. It offers the opportunity to experience something different. Some aspects are more enjoyable, others will make me glad to drive back in the good old U.S.A. again, once I get used to driving on the "right" side of the road.

Source: November/December 1993 NMA News

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