Overseas drivers licence system slammed for safety failures

New Zealand's system of licensing overseas drivers has been condemned as outdated and unsafe - with warnings the road toll will continue to rise if nothing is done.

More than 3.5 million international visitors come to New Zealand each year, and they're allowed to drive with an appropriate overseas licence or international permit for up to 12 months.

However a road safety campaigner says overseas drivers are using fake licences to drive on our roads, while others simply lack the skills to drive safely. There are also allegations overseas drivers are leaving then returning to New Zealand to restart their 12-month limit - and never having to sit a driving test.

"Visitors are entitled to drive in New Zealand for up to 12 months after arriving using an overseas licence, provided that overseas licence is current and valid," a NZTA spokesperson told Newshub.

"This is provided for by the same international (UN) convention which allows New Zealanders to use our NZ licences when driving overseas."

If they want to drive after that year, they need to convert their licence at a specialist site in New Zealand.

Drivers from exempt countries - including the US and South Africa - only have to hand over a photocopy of their foreign driving licence. Drivers from non-exempt countries have to take New Zealand's theory and practical driving tests.

Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the car review website dogandlemon.com, says foreign drivers are often poorly trained and easily confused.

"There are two major issues. One is that a large percentage of foreign drivers come from countries where cars drive on the opposite side of the road," he told Newshub.

"The other is that many foreign drivers come from countries where driving standards are poor and drivers' licenses are often virtually worthless."

The Indian government estimates that 30 percent of Indian drivers' licences are fakes, while there are also reports of a global epidemic of fake licences coming from China.

"China has the highest number of road accident fatalities in the world, many of which have been directly attributed to drivers' bad habits and their lack of respect for traffic rules," Mr Matthew-Wilson says, adding that many Chinese motorists routinely bribe instructors to get a license

  • In 2016, licensed overseas drivers were involved in 24 fatal traffic crashes, 114 serious injury crashes and 506 minor injury crashes
  • In 2017, over 47,000 overseas conversion applications were granted. However, 1695 overseas drivers who had converted their licences were involved in accidents
  • In about a third of crashes where an overseas driver was at fault, one of the factors that contributed to the crash was the driver failing to adjust to New Zealand rules or conditions
  • And the worst offenders on our roads for the first time in five years were Chinese licence holders, figures show

Statistics on the number of Chinese licence holders driving on NZ roads are not available. However, a Ministry of Transport report into 2016 overseas driver crashes suggests the 370 percent increase in visitors from China since 2005 is a contributing factor.

Mr Matthew-Wilson believes that even properly licensed Chinese drivers often lack the skills to drive New Zealand's roads. He's witnessed "shocking" driving by foreign motorists.

"Driving through the Picton Sounds last year, I very nearly collided with a tourist van. They were parked at the side of the road but suddenly turned directly into my path," he told Newshub.

"Like many tourists, the van driver appeared to be tired, confused and he clearly looked in the wrong direction before pulling out. This sort of appalling driving is a daily occurrence in the tourist areas."

Mr Matthew-Wilson places the blame for poor tourist driving on "10 years of inaction by the government".

"The previous government adopted the attitude that enforcing sensible road safety standards on foreign drivers would be bad for the tourism industry," he says.

"The end result was multiple fatalities and countless shattered lives."

Mr Matthew-Wilson believes the new Government is more interested in dealing with the road toll, but he's looking forward to action rather than words.

"You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. If we impose the same standards on foreign drivers that we impose on New Zealand drivers, then lots of foreign drivers won't be allowed behind the wheel," he says.

"Does the Government have the courage to keep unsafe drivers off the road? I'm eager to find out, but I'm not holding my breath."