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Seven laws you need to know about driving in Australia

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There’s nothing like an Australian road trip. It puts you in the driver’s seat allowing you to see this beautiful country side, from rugged seascapes to green pastures, and the famous, dry red Aussie outback at your own pace.  And, in Australia the weather is usually good enough all year round to guarantee a great experience. In fact, with vast distances between cities, and a relatively unsophisticated public transport system, in Australia, the ‘roadie’ is practically a national past time! Most people who visit intend at some point to hire a car, and hit the open road. But here are seven things you should know about driving in Australia.

Australia is made up of six states and two territories, each with their own set of laws and penalties. While there are many similarities across these jurisdictions, rules of the road are not exactly the same. Fines and punishments for breaking road laws are different in every place. And Australian Police are highly visible on the roads, often conducting random roadside checks, which involve pulling a car over, to ensure, amongst other things, that vehicles are roadworthy (safe to drive and compliant with the law) and that drivers are licensed behind the wheel. They also conduct random checks to ensure drivers have not been drinking or taking drugs.

Driving in Australia – 7 Important Laws to Know

1. You will need a valid drivers’ licence.

It is illegal not to drive with a valid drivers’ licence. If you’re on a foreign licence in Australia you can drive for up to three months. Any time past that, requires that you get an International Driving Permit before you leave home. Failing to have a valid licence can result in you ending up in court.

2. Seatbelts are compulsory.

Everyone in the vehicle must be restrained, that is, wearing a seat belt. There are laws which also require that you restrain young children in baby carriers and booster seats which must be fitted properly to the vehicle.

3. Drink and Drug driving is taken very seriously right around Australia.

Any person found operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in excess of 0.05 faces penalties which can include hefty fines and time in jail.

If you are caught with traces of drugs in your system, even harsher penalties apply. This includes marijuana which is not legal in Australia. Roadside drug testing includes checking for traces of MDMA, cocaine, amphetamines and THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. But because roadside drug testing is not necessarily 100% reliable, a positive reading at a random roadside check can result in the requirement for laboratory tests, and this process can really interrupt your holiday. The best advice is to ensure you’re sober, if you’re planning on driving.

driving in australia - road trains
When driving in Australia, especially in the Outback, be aware of road trains!

4. It is an offence to drive while you are tired.

Many visitors to Australia don’t really appreciate how vast the distances are until they actually get here. Fatigue is a major cause of fatal accidents in Australia. As such, driving tired it is an offence that is taken seriously by the law and is punishable by heavy fines, If you are involved in an accident, then you can be charged with a range of offences that can result a prison term.

5. You cannot use a mobile phone while driving.

In Australia, your phone needs to be tucked away, which means you cannot rely on it for navigation unless your passenger is operating the phone, or the vehicle has a certified hands-free operating system. Again, heavy fines apply.

6. Many Australian cities don’t have extensive cycleways.

This means, that in most places, we share the road with pushbikes. Motor vehicles must provide at least a one-metre clearance if they are passing a cyclist, if it is safe to do so, otherwise they must stay behind the cyclist until they can pass. It is illegal not to provide this distance when you are in a motorised vehicle, including on a motorbike.

7. Speeding is a criminal offence.

In Australia, even on the open highways, there are speed limits. Failing to adhere to them can mean trouble with the law. In some rural areas or on the open roads in the country where there is not a lot of traffic, it’s tempting to up the speed limit to get to your destination much faster. But in these areas, speed cameras and police patrols can still catch you doing the wrong thing. Speeding is taken very seriously across all states and territories, so you must ensure that at all times you obey the limit.

Australian Road Rules

Before driving in Australia, it pays to brush up on the road rules. Here, we drive on the left-hand side.

In various states, such as Victoria for example, there are special road rules that need to be adhered to, in order to move around the tram system. Other states have anomalies too.

In Queensland it is illegal to ‘hoon’. This is a slang term for ‘antisocial behaviour behind the wheel’ (in a car, van or on a motorbike) — such as speeding, street racing, burnouts and playing loud music from the stereo. ‘Hooning’ includes any number of traffic offences, such as dangerous driving, careless driving, driving without reasonable consideration for other people, driving in a way that makes unnecessary noise or smoke, and racing or conducting speed trials on a public road. Penalties vary, but carry fines ranging from $2600 to $5250, or time in jail. In Queensland, Police have powers in impound, immobilise and confiscate the vehicle you were driving when you committed the offence, too.

It’s also illegal to smoke in a car with children present (passengers under 16) present. On-the-spot fines apply if you are caught. In some states it is also illegal to leave children unattended in cars.

Other weird and wonderful road laws include the fact that it’s illegal Australia-wide to beep your horn unnecessarily. It’s also illegal to have your arms or legs outside of a vehicle while it’s moving. In Victoria and Queensland, it’s an offence to leave your vehicle unlocked if you are not near it.

To make sure you have a safe and enjoyable holiday, there are various websites that have information about driving in Australia.

About: Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of ‘Woman with Words’. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.

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