Just how road safety aware are international self-drive visitors in New Zealand?

International visitors who self-drive during their stay in New Zealand have increased over the years and this trend is likely to continue. At the same time, there has been increasing concern in the popular media and among the general New Zealand community that these self-drive international visitors may not all be fully aware of the rules of the road in the country, and as a result may be a safety hazard to themselves and other road users. Graphic news articles and social media videos of reckless/ dangerous driving by those behind the wheels of rental cars have fed this concern.

There is readily accessible data about the extent and nature of road accidents involving international visitors to New Zealand, which makes interesting reading alongside these media and social-driven concerns. However, these statistics are limited in that they only show the results of traffic accidents involving international visitors. They do not provide knowledge about why these accidents occurred or tell us about all the near-misses involving international self-drive visitors.

The research

In this context, there is a dearth of evidence regarding the awareness of road rules and safe behaviour among international self-drive visitors to New Zealand. Consequently, the aim of the project we undertook in 2018/19, which was funded by the Transport Research and Educational Trust, was to identify the knowledge of the road rules and appropriate safe behaviour in New Zealand of international tourists who have hired/bought a vehicle during their stay in the country.

The data utilised in this project was gathered using a questionnaire distributed at a face-to-face level to international visitors in Queenstown. It was developed using practice tests provided by the New Zealand Automobile Association. Thirty multiple-choice questions about road safety and rules in New Zealand were utilised. A total of 226 completed surveys were collected from visitors from 34 countries.

Both men and women were well represented in the sample, which was dominated by those between 18 and 34 years old. This fits with the demographics of self-drive visitors to New Zealand, as identified by Tourism New Zealand. The fact that almost 40% of the respondents were between 18 and 24 years old is also worth noting, given that statistically this age group is more at risk of having a car accident than older cohorts, irrespective of nationality.

Confident, but lacking knowledge

Of the respondents, 85% said they were between ‘somewhat confident’ and ‘very confident’ of their ability to drive safely while in New Zealand. In contrast, the other 15% said they were between ‘doubtful’ and ‘not confident at all’ about driving in the country.

It is arguably concerning to see so many people driving on New Zealand’s roads and not being confident in doing so. At the time of taking part in the survey, the majority of the participants had been driving in New Zealand for more than a week. It is therefore perturbing to see that even after a week, so many respondents lacked confidence in driving in the country.

In New Zealand driving theory tests, 32 questions out of 35 have to be answered correctly in order to pass the test, which is approximately 91% correct answers. In order to pass the test in the survey, participants had to correctly answer 28 out of 30 questions (91% correct). Based on this percentage as a pass, only seven out of the 226 participants passed the test (see below).

How to view the high percentage who almost passed is arguably a matter of perspective. On the one hand, with only a small amount of training, this group may have passed. On the other hand, the results clearly show that the vast majority of the respondents would not have been allowed to drive in New Zealand had they had to take the national driving test prior to doing so.

The failure of almost all the respondents to pass the test is especially concerning given the fact that most of them were confident of their driving abilities in New Zealand. This indicates that a significant proportion of the sample were overconfident in their driving knowledge and abilities within a New Zealand context.

There were three questions that obtained less than 50% correct answers. This may be a positive finding, in that it suggests there is a need for targeted knowledge improvement among international visitors. However, it needs to be realised that only nine of the questions were answered correctly by 90% or more of the respondents. This indicates the need for broad knowledge improvement related to road rules and safety in New Zealand among international self-drive visitors.

The three questions that most of the participants did not know the correct answer to were:

  • What should you do if your vehicle breaks down on a motorway?
  • When turning right from a two-laned road into a one-way street that has two lanes, which lane must you turn into?
  • When must you turn your vehicle headlights on?

The failure of almost all the respondents to pass the test is especially concerning given the fact that most of them were confident of their driving abilities in New Zealand

Who is most at risk?

The simple answer is that there is no one group of international visitors that is less aware of road safety and rules in New Zealand than another. No gender or age differences were discerned in this study. Similarly, no difference was found between those who came from countries with left-side driving or right-side driving.

The level of confidence in driving in New Zealand also seems to have no influence on ability to pass the test. Rather, it is simply the case that all international visitors seem to struggle to pass the theoretical test of road safety and rules awareness.

All those surveyed mentioned having sought information about driving in New Zealand prior to their visit. Information search sources included rental car companies, backpacker guides, the NZ Automobile Association, the NZ Transport Agency, and the Drive Safe NZ website.


This study identified that there appears to be a serious gap in the knowledge of self-drive international visitors to New Zealand regarding the driving rules and safe practices in the country. As such, it lends weight to concerns about the preparedness of international visitors to take to the roads of New Zealand without putting themselves and/or other road users at risk.

However, before rushing to castigate international road users for a lack of knowledge of the rules of driving in New Zealand or to ban them from the country’s roads, there is a need to ask how many of those with New Zealand driving licences would have passed the test administered in this study.

It is arguably one thing to pass a theory test for which you have prepared and another thing to do so after several years of driving, but with no other preparation. This echoes the concerns raised recently by renowned driver Greg Murphy when he called for New Zealanders to be regularly tested on their driving ability.

However, it appears from the results of this study that something needs to be done to improve road safety and rules knowledge among international visitors to New Zealand. It is equally clear that such visitors are already attempting to help themselves, with the sample searching for information about driving in New Zealand prior to arriving here.

There is therefore a need to examine the sources of information the respondents mentioned to determine the accuracy and effectiveness of the information currently being provided and to improve it where necessary.

This study has focused on international visitors’ knowledge of rules and safe practices regarding road usage in New Zealand. There is a need to add to this study by looking at the driving practices of international visitors. Thanks to the fact that many, if not all, vehicle rental agencies now have GPS technology installed in their vehicles, there is the opportunity to undertake such a study.

Gaining access to such material is, however, not without its challenges, as companies tend to view the information as commercially sensitive. However, given that access to such information would aid understanding of the driving behaviour of international visitors and therefore help with the development of tools designed to aid safe driving behaviour, issues of commercial sensitivity should not be allowed to take precedence.

With the number of self-drive international visitors to New Zealand only likely to increase in the future, there is a clear need for the development of a cohesive plan to increase their knowledge of the rules and safe practices related to driving in the country and, as a result, increase the quality of their driving behaviour. This plan needs to include provision for the development of effective tools to aid international visitors.

Such a route is important for the continued health of the national tourism industry and the welfare of all road users. Putative measures that seek to ban international visitors from New Zealand roads are not a solution that will benefit the country.

Neil Carr heads the Department of Tourism and Ismail Shaheer is a PhD candidate at the University of Otago; Neil’s research focuses on understanding behaviour within tourism and leisure experiences; anyone wishing to learn more about this study is welcome to contact Neil at neil.carr@otago.ac.nz