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Australian Highways - A Guide for Travellers

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Australia is a collection of amazing tourist attractions, conveniently located at 1000km intervals. Spend a day driving through Europe and you could pass through half a dozen countries, each with enough history and sights to occupy a full-time tourist for a year. Spend a day driving in Australia and you might see half a dozen small towns. If you're planning on seeing Australia by car, and you're looking at a map on your kitchen table thinking "it's not that far, surely"; rest assured, it is.

Australians measure the distance between two points on the map by the amount of time it takes to drive between them, no matter how great or small the distance: The local supermarket is five minutes down the road, Melbourne is an hour from Ballarat, Brisbane is 12 hours from Sydney, Adelaide is three days from Perth.

When you realise that between Adelaide and Perth there is 2700km (30 hours drive, if you stick to the speed limit and have a rest every now and then) and about six towns with a population big enough to warrant a dot on the map which is visible without a magnfying glass, you can see why Australia's highway system resembles a bunch of black rubber bands tied to horses bolting in opposite directions: most roads are either messy and tangled, or so taught you think they'll snap any second.

Consider Australia's geography for a second - the east coast is a giant, heavily forested mountain range, the rest, all 7,000,000km² of it, is flat desert. If you gave every Australian person an equal share of the total land mass and told them to stand in the middle of it, everyone would be standing about 750 metres apart. If you asked everyone in Germany to do the same thing they'd be standing 4 metres apart. You can see why Germany can afford to have eight-lane Autobahns everywhere, and most of Australia is linked by two lane roads (in varying conditions). The map below outlines the stark comparison - keep in mind that every blue dot on the inset map of Germany (which is to scale) is joined by at least a four lane autobahn - most of the green roads highlighted on the Australian map are dual lane highways without gutters.

Map of Australia's National Highway Network in Comparison to Germany's Autobahn Network (yellow inset)

Image copyright © 2006 Postcardz

For obvious reasons, the distances between towns and cities in Australia, and the relatively low levels of traffic mean that Australia's highways aren't as wide, well-maintaned or safe as many other western countries. That's not to say they are all dirt tracks (although some of them are), but on 95% of Australia's highway system you need to be prepared for huge trucks to whiz past within centimetres of your door handle and large kangaroos to jump out from the bushes and slam into your car, among many other dangers.

The Main Highways in Australia

  • The Hume Highway — Links Sydney and Melbourne
  • The Pacific Highway — Links Sydney and Brisbane
  • The Princes Highway — The coast road linking Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide
  • The Eyre Highway — Links Adelaide and Perth across the Nullarbor Plain

Scenic Highways

Australian Road Rules

  • Speed Limits — The maximum speed on Australian freeways is 110km/h, on highways and major rural roads which aren't signposted it's 100km/h. In towns you'll have to slow down to 80km/h, 70km/h or 60km/h and on suburban streets the speed limit is 50km/h (except in the Northern Territory). Watch out for 'school zones' where the speed limit drops to 40km/h when kids are entering and leaving the school at certain times of the day. All highways have regularly posted speed limit signs which show the speed limit in km/h in black letters in a red circle on a white sign. Police patrol every main highway and main road in the country an a regular basis, so if you speed you will probably get caught and fined. Speeding is a major cause of road fatalities in Australia, so Police in all states aren't lenient. Even if you think you're in the middle of nowhere on a road no-one has used in days, chances are, the next car you see will have blue and red lights. If you're speeding, they'll be flashing at you. Don't speed.
  • Drive on the left hand side of the road — This becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly, and even if you've never done it before, it's not that hard to get used to. At some major tourist attractions (such as the Great Ocean Road in Victoria) there are now signs to remind you when you get back in the car that you have to drive on the left.
  • Don't drink and drive — The legal driving limit in Australia is a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 — about one standard drink every hour will put you at the limit. If you drink and drive in Australia and get caught, or worse, hurt someone else, you will probably end up in jail. Australian Police have very precise breathalysing machines, and they perform random breath tests all around the country at all times of day and night.

Dangers and Annoyances on Australian Highways

  • A road train - pass this at 100km/h on a narrow road and your life will flash before your eyes (along with a fair bit of sheep shit)
    Distance — if you drive for too long you'll get tired and lose concentration. You don't want to lose concentration while you're travelling at 100km/h with trucks coming the other way. The national road safety mantra is "stop, revive, survive".
  • Wildlife — Kangaroos become deadly when they jump into the path of a speeding vehicle. A large kangaroo weighs as much as a motorbike and even if you hit a small kangaroo or wallaby it will throw an average car of course. On country roads it's quite common to see cows, sheep and horses grazing along the side of the road, so be careful.
  • Trucks — On outback roads there are trucks officially known as 'road trains'. Imagine driving along a narrow two-lane road at 100km/h and either trying to pass, or get out of the way of a small steel planet. You get the idea.Even on more frequently used highways, passing a big truck can be a scary experience.
  • Other drivers — Australia has very strict highway police officers and very strict road rules, but there are still people who choose to ignore them. Watch out for speeding drivers in unsafe cars, particularly in rural areas.


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