Visiting drivers on our roads

Dylan Thomsen looks into the issues of sharing the road with overseas tourists

The news about road crashes made sad reading last summer. Eighty-two people lost their lives between December and February and a number of crashes involving tourists put the spotlight on the issue of overseas drivers.

Ideas to make the roads safer were debated thick and fast in the media and there were instances of vigilante action when people took drivers’ keys. Many AA Members visited AA Centres, phoned in or emailed their thoughts on what needed to be done and the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), as part of the Visiting Drivers project, recorded more than 200 ideas put forward by the public. People and communities – especially those in popular tourist areas – were deeply concerned about the risks on their roads, and at the heart of it all were families who lost loved ones and people seriously hurt in road accidents.

“It actually doesn’t matter what I say, how I say it, what the numbers and statistics are. If a loved one is a victim, that’s all that counts for that person," Associate Minister of Transport Craig Foss says.
As the minister responsible for road safety and overseeing the Visiting Drivers project, his focus is on making sure the groups connected to the issue are doing as much as they can, as fast as they can, and are working together.

“Everyone is searching for a solution because no one wants to see that smashed-up car. It doesn’t matter who’s driving, no one wants to see someone hurt and so we all reach
for solutions.”

The Government’s job, he explains, is to test ideas, check the practicalities of them, consider their viability and ask if they will actually solve the problem.

One idea, to test overseas drivers before letting them drive here, was put forward by Sean and Cody Roberts, whose father died in a crash with an overseas driver. They took a petition to Parliament last year and the idea was supported by a large number of people. Mr Foss says officials considered it, but it was not a workable solution because of the near-impossible logistics of trying to have a testing regime for millions of visitors each year. There was also a question of the potential impact it could have on New Zealanders’ entitlements to drive abroad and, perhaps most importantly, whether it would make a significant difference to the number of crashes.

“We really needed to concentrate our resources on where the problems are,“ Mr Foss says. “Many drivers drove quite happily from say Auckland to down south, then the accidents were happening down there.”

Westland, Mackenzie, Queenstown Lakes and Southland have the highest rates of crashes involving overseas drivers in the country.

“What we know from the crash statistics is that when there are more vehicles around and other people to follow, people tend to make fewer mistakes,” says Jim Harland, the NZTA chair of the Visiting Drivers project. The project is initially focused on some of the southern areas that have higher proportions of visiting driver accidents, with a view to rolling measures out to other parts of the country.
The programme, involving central and local government, Police, the AA, the tourism sector and rental vehicle companies, is delivering a range of initiatives including:

  • Improvements to the roads, with 50km of centreline rumble-strip and 140km of ‘no passing’ lines being added, as well as more directional arrows on 950km of key tourist routes.
  • Increased tourist-focused safety signage on the roads and at popular visitor destinations.
  • Increased Police presence on high-risk routes.
  • In-vehicle reminders of key safety rules for rental vehicles.
  • A driving in New Zealand brochure for every Chinese visitor with their visa approval.
  • Information on safe driving for travel agents to pass on to clients.
  • Online sources of safe driving information including
  • Locating rest stops where tourists might want to take photos to try to prevent them stopping at unsafe places for snapshots.

Rental vehicle firms are also taking action. An information-sharing scheme between firms is being trialed; if a customer has their contract cancelled, other rental firms will be alerted. And a code of conduct has been developed, requiring rental firms to provide information on driving in multiple languages, and to encourage visitors off long-haul flights to stay overnight before driving. Visitors picking up vehicles will also be asked a series of questions to assess how prepared they are for driving here.

What action is taken if these questions raise concerns will be up to individual rental firms, but Tourism Industry Association Chief Executive Chris Roberts says some companies will refuse to hand over the keys if the process raises warning signs.

Although these measures are not mandatory for rental firms, Mr Roberts explains that the voluntary code could be implemented faster and more easily, and was able to get more buy-in from the sector. Most of the major rental firms have been involved in developing the code and there will be an audit process to check that it is being followed. Also, introducing regulations to replace the voluntary code can be considered in the future, if necessary.

The private sector has also been stepping up, with Air New Zealand introducing in-flight safety videos, several mobile apps released and some unrealistic travel times on Google maps adjusted to better reflect the real driving environment.

The hope is that all the different measures being taken will mean fewer crashes involving overseas drivers and Queenstown Lakes District Mayor Vanessa van Uden wants that as much as everyone else. While the issue was talked about all over the country last summer, the concern is understandably much greater in communities where in peak season every third or fourth vehicle is driven by a visitor.

“There’s never anything we can do that will make driving 100% safe, but I think we’ve made good inroads and there is a lot of information out there now,” Mrs van Uden says.
She believes one of the keys is ensuring visitors understand the driving conditions before they make a decision on how they will travel here.

“State Highway One is not what they might expect from the main highway in their own country.”
Mrs van Uden also wants people to remember that a lot of the issues involving overseas drivers apply to local drivers and visitors from other parts of New Zealand as well.

“We all see things on the roads sometimes that make us shake our head, but yelling and abusing people is never the solution. The way I see it is we’re producing things that will make the roads safer for everyone, not just visitors.”

The AA takes action

Overseas drivers will be able to test their readiness for New Zealand roads online with the launch of the AA’s Visiting Drivers Training Programme.

The programme will be freely available through the AA website from the end of the year and will allow people overseas to simulate real-life driving situations filmed on New Zealand roads before they get behind the wheel here.

The site puts users into the driver’s seat for a variety of different situations and asks them questions to check their understanding of our road rules. It also will allow visitors to familiarise themselves with the different types of environments and hazards they could experience here, with filming featuring some key southern tourist routes.

“This will be a really good tool for overseas drivers to show that they have taken steps to prepare themselves for driving in New Zealand,” says AA General Manager Development Nigel Clark.

The AA will be promoting the site through its tourism division and hopes that the tourism sector and rental vehicle firms will also recommend it to visitors.

“The AA is all about keeping drivers safe on the roads and providing this for overseas drivers will hopefully help keep them safer, which keeps local drivers safer as well,” says Mr Clark.

“There is no magic bullet, but all the different things being done to improve visiting driver safety add up, and the AA wanted to take its own action to make a difference.”

Alongside the development of the online training programme, safe driving messages are included in almost 3 million AA Traveller maps and guides distributed through AA Centres each year. AA Traveller is also producing a specific guide for Chinese visitors this year which will highlight the road rules and safe driving information.

Further information

If you are concerned about another vehicle on the road call *555; if it's an emergency situation, call 111.

A full list of the Visiting Driver Project initiatives can be found on the Safer Journeys website.

The facts


Last year 2.8 million international tourists visited our shores – the bulk of them between November and March. While here, about 68% drove a car and 18% a campervan (some both).


In 2014 there were 268 fatal crashes and 8614 injury crashes on our roads; overseas drivers were involved in 16 fatal crashes and 536 injury crashes.


Over the past five years there have been on average 13.6 fatal crashes a year when an overseas licence holder was at fault. Over the same period, the average number of fatal crashes in total on our roads a year was 274.


The numbers of crashes involving overseas licence holders has stayed relatively constant or decreased over the past decade. At the same time, the number of international visitors coming to New Zealand has increased by about 25%.


In 2014 the six countries that had the most visitors involved in crashes were (from 1-6): Australia, Germany, the UK, China, India and the USA.


About a third of at-fault overseas licence holders in crashes failed to adapt to New Zealand conditions or rules. Crashes will often involve multiple factors; the four other most common factors for accidents involving overseas licence holders are losing control and running off the road (35%), failing to give way or stop (29%), not seeing another party (19%), and inattention or distraction (17%). Failing to keep left was a factor in 5% of crashes involving an overseas licence holder.


Crashes involving local drivers have the same four most common factors as above.


Over the past 10 years, either Australian or UK visitors have been the groups involved in the greatest number of crashes annually.


53% of the overseas licence holders at fault in fatal crashes over the past five years came from countries that drive on the right; 47% from countries that drive on the left.


About 22% of the overseas licence holders involved in a crash are immigrants or students still legally using a licence from their home country. Drivers from many other nations can drive in New Zealand for up to a year before needing to convert to a New Zealand licence.


Some areas have greater proportions of crashes involving overseas licence holders, generally regions with high tourist numbers and smaller local populations. Auckland has by far the highest number of crashes involving overseas licence holders but they only make up 5% of the crashes in the region overall. In contrast, between 21-38% of all crashes in the Westland, Mackenzie, Queenstown Lakes, Southland and Kaikoura regions involve an overseas licence holder.

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