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Road safety and driving

Approximately 1.3 million people die on the world's roads each year. Over 90 per cent of these deaths occur in low and middle-income countries. Tens of millions of people are injured or disabled every year as a result of road accidents.

Like here in Australia, whether through inexperience or their willingness to more readily take risky decisions, young adults are particularly vulnerable.

Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among those aged between 10 and 24 years. Each year, nearly 400,000 people in this age bracket die on the world's roads - an average of more than 1,000 per day. According to the WHO, vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, as well as public transport users, are particularly susceptible.

Driving risks overseas

Dangerous drivers, unsafe vehicles and ill-designed and poorly maintained roads make road travel a risky undertaking. Inadequate medical and emergency services, ineffective law enforcement, little or no driver education, and an often startling array of motorised, non-motorised, human, and animal traffic moving at different speeds add to the risks. Road travel at night and outside major cities, in countries with poor safety records, little or no street lighting, stray animals and/or mountainous terrain can be very dangerous.

Driving safely

Following safety precautions such as using seat belts, including child restraints, not drinking and driving, taking regular breaks while driving long distances, and obeying the speed limit, make you less likely to be involved in an accident and more likely to survive if you are in an accident.

Australians should learn about their destination's road conditions and traffic culture before getting behind the wheel. It is important to be aware of local laws and security conditions when driving overseas. Driving under the influence of alcohol can have severe criminal penalties in many countries. In some countries drivers must have no quantity of alcohol in their system. The penalties for traffic infringements in some countries can be severe by Australian standards. They can include hefty on-the-spot fines, immediate confiscation of drivers licence, immediate impounding of vehicle, detention, deportation or imprisonment.

For more detailed information, the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT) offers regularly updated Road Reports for approximately 150 countries. Available via e-mail or download (fees apply), each report covers general road conditions, local driving style and the realities of dealing with the police, public transportation and emergency situations. Other useful features include summaries of especially dangerous roads and phonetic translations for use in unsafe or emergency situations.

Motorcycle accidents involving Australians are very common in South-East Asia, particularly in areas such as Bali, resort areas of Thailand and in Vietnam. Australian travellers should ensure they wear helmets, preferably full-face helmets, and other protective clothing when riding motorcycles, scooters and mopeds overseas in order to minimise the risk of serious injury.

The safety standards you might expect of transport and tour operators, including for adventure activities, are not always met. Sufficient safety equipment may not be provided and recommended maintenance standards and safety precautions may not be observed.

Avoid riding with drivers who seem to be under the influence of alcohol or medication, or appear over-tired, irrational or distracted. If you're renting a car, before you start driving, make sure it's equipped with appropriate safety features (including seat belts, air bags, and if required child restraints), and check the tyres, headlights, seatbelts and wipers before you leave the lot. In some countries it is compulsory to carry a break down kit in your car - check with the hire company.

Pedestrian safety

Pedestrians account for a large number of road fatalities. You should look carefully in all directions before crossing the road. Remember in many countries traffic travels on the right hand-side of the road not the left as in Australia. You should not assume that drivers will stop at zebra crossings or obey other traffic signals or signs. Be alert to reckless driver behaviour. When walking along the roadside, you should face the oncoming traffic so that you can see approaching vehicles.

International driving permits

Many countries require Australians to have an international driving permit (IDP) in addition to a valid Australian driving licence to legally drive a car, or ride a motorbike. An IDP is a widely recognised document that can be issued by associated members of the Australian Automobile Association (AAA). Before driving overseas, Australians should contact the appropriate foreign mission in Australia for information on drivers licence requirements.

Ensure the IDP allows you to drive or ride the vehicles you intend to use. Some insurance policies will not cover you if you have an accident using a vehicle you are not licensed to drive.

IDPs are issued through state and territory motoring clubs. To obtain an International Driving Permit, please contact the relevant IDP authority in your state:

Motor vehicle insurance

Always insure yourself to drive a vehicle overseas and carry the insurance papers with you. Check your vehicle insurance to see if you are covered for breakdown recovery, accidental damage and medical expenses for injuries suffered in an accident. If driving a friend's vehicle overseas, check first that you are appropriately covered by their insurance policy to drive their car. When hiring a car carefully read the insurance document to determine your level of cover. In some countries, the legal minimum for insurance cover may be low, leaving you responsible for claims over this limit.

In some countries it is an offence to drive a vehicle if you are not named on the insurance policy as the driver.

Owning a vehicle overseas

If you intend purchasing a vehicle overseas, always check beforehand with the government authority or the automobile association in that country that you can legally buy and insure the vehicle. In some countries, you may be able to buy a vehicle but unable to insure it without proof of a residential address in that country.