Driving in Australia, travel tips and advice: Six interstate road rules that can ruin your holiday

A week after returning from a roadtrip to Canberra, I receive a letter in the mail from the ACT government. "Oh," I naively wonder, "are they writing to thank me for supporting local tourism in challenging times, and helping to stimulate the economy?" Well, the latter part is true – the letter is asking me to forfeit an extra $477. And three demerit points. My friendly thank you letter is, in fact, an infringement notice for speeding. Through a school zone.

I stare at the paper in disbelief. Impossible! As a grandmother acutely aware of child safety, I always slow down in school zones. Then I notice the time of the so-called felony - 11:59am. A-ha, it must be a mistake!

One Google search later, however, I realise the mistake is mine. In Canberra, school zones run all day from 8am to 4pm – even when little rugrats are supposedly locked up in classrooms.

"Jurisdiction to jurisdiction, there are rules that change," says Peter Khoury, media manager at the NRMA. "We encourage people to do two things when planning a roadtrip. First of all, if you are going interstate and haven't driven there before, do a bit of research and familiarise yourself with at least the main road rules that police will focus on – things like speed, and rules around using your phone.

"Also just use common sense. The reality is, if we drive sensibly to the rules that apply in our own state, and we try and apply courtesy to the way we drive, we should be OK."

Ahhh … I did that. I drove according to the law of NSW, and was caught out. So be aware of these conflicting interstate road rules, and save yourself some holiday grief:

Slow down in school zones

Parents are pushing house prices up in suburbs within popular school catchments.

The most confusing of all, with different rules applying in each state. In NSW and Queensland, school zones operate before and after school and are clearly marked with flashing lights. In Canberra, they operate from 8am to 4pm, without any signals to encourage drivers to slow down; while in Victoria, there are two types of school zones – permanent (where you must always drive at 40km/h) and time-based school zones. Meanwhile, in South Australia, hit the brakes and keep a lookout for small people – the speed limit through a school zone is just 25km/h, 24 hours a day, seven days a week "whenever a child is in the zone".

Roundabout rules

In most states, if you are proceeding straight through a roundabout, there is no need to indicate before entering the roundabout but advisable to signal left before exiting. In Canberra – the home of roundabouts – there is a "halfway around" rule – if you intend leaving the roundabout before the halfway point, you must indicate left before entering.

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Use of mobile phones

Police will not be impressed by these mad skills

Police will not be impressed by these mad skills Photo: iStock

Throughout Australia, it is illegal to use your mobile phone whilst driving. In NSW, if you pull over legally out of the line of traffic, you can still make a call or text, even with the engine running; do this in Victoria, however, and you'll cop a fine – the engine must be switched off and the handbrake on. It is also illegal everywhere except for NSW to use your phone at a drive-through, even to make a transaction – with fines up to $484, that's one costly Big Mac!

Car-mounted phone use

This one's a doozy – in Tasmania, it is illegal to use your mobile phone as a GPS device, even if it is dash-mounted! Only the use of designated Sat Navs is permitted.

Slowing down when passing emergency vehicles

Last year, NSW trialled a rule adopted in Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania requiring drivers to slow to 40km/h when passing stationary emergency vehicles. While this rule still applies on NSW roads with a speed of less than 80km/h, it has been amended for high speed roads (above 90km/h) to "slow down safely to a speed that is reasonable for the circumstances". South Australia, however, takes a tougher stance – there you must slow to 25km/h if passing an emergency vehicle with flashing lights.

Obscure laws

In NSW, drivers can cop a $194 fine and lose three points for driving through a muddy puddle and splashing a pedestrian waiting at a bus stop. All other pedestrians, it seems, are fair game. In Queensland and Victoria, you can be fined for leaving your car unattended with the windows open more than 5cm, regardless of how hot it is. Also in Victoria, it is illegal to tie a goat to your vehicle as you drive through a public area; while in Western Australia, it is illegal to carry more than 50kg of potatoes in your car. So go easy on the spuds, roadtrippers!

See also: The 20 things you must do on a summer road trip

See also: The 10 best stops: Driving Sydney to Melbourne on the inland route

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