Advice for travellers


Driving in South Africa

South Africa has excellent road infrastructure, large vehicle hire fleets run by international and local rental companies, great weather and plenty of stunning scenery – which combines to make self-driving a viable and enjoyable option. If you're thinking of taking the long way round, here are a few tips to enhance your trip.

Car hire

Most car rental companies (see the links on the right) are represented at South Africa's main airports and in most city centres. Vehicles may generally be picked up at one centre and dropped off at a branch in another centre, subject to a fee.

It is advisable to take out the insurance offered by the vehicle rental companies, unless you have specific cover in place. All major credit cards are accepted.

Driver's licences

Any valid driver's licence is accepted in South Africa, provided it bears the photograph and signature of the holder and is printed or authenticated in English.

However, vehicle hire companies may also require an international driver's licence. It is worth confirming requirements with your travel agent or the vehicle hire company when making your booking.

This holds for additional drivers as well, who must be identified when you hire your vehicle. Remember to carry all your documentation with you when you travel as traffic officers will expect to see it if they stop you for any reason.

Keep left, belt up, think kilometres

Keep left, pass right. South Africans drive on the left-hand side of the road, and our cars – rental cars included – are therefore right-hand drive vehicles, the gear shift being operated with the left hand).

All distances, speed limits (and speedometers) are marked in kilometres.

Wearing of seat belts is compulsory. Using hand-held phones while driving is against the law – use a vehicle phone attachment or hands-free kit if you want to speak on your mobile phone.

Drinking and driving is prohibited. The legal limit is a breath alcohol content of 0.24mg per 1 000ml, or a blood alcohol limit of 0.05g per 100ml. But how do you know if you're over the limit?

The Automobile Association of South Africa says the rule of thumb is a maximum of one unit of alcohol per hour, which constitutes 10ml of pure alcohol, based on an adult weighing 68kg. Our bodies can process only one unit of alcohol each hour. However, it is important to be aware that if you weigh less than 68kg your body will need more time to process the same amount of alcohol.

What does one unit represent in layman’s terms? It is equal to:
  • two thirds of a beer or spirit cooler with 5% alcohol content
  • 75ml of red or white wine per hour with an alcohol content of 12% to 14%
  • Up to one 25ml tot of whisky or brandy per hour.

Speed limit

The general speed limit on South Africa's national highways, urban freeways and other major routes is 120km/h (75mph). On secondary (rural) roads it is 100km/h (60mph). In built-up areas it is usually 60km/h (35mph), unless otherwise indicated. Check the road signs.

If you're in a hire car and get a speeding fine, the car rental company will pay the fine, and will charge that amount plus an admin fee to your credit card.

Filling up

Various types of petrol (gas) are available in South Africa: unleaded, 97-, 95- or 93- octane ("super" or "premium"). The 95-octane petrol is available at higher altitude, as well as 93-octane. At the coast, your choice is between 95- and 97-octane.

Diesel is available with 0.05% sulphur content and 0.005% sulphur content.

Hire cars are more likely to require unleaded petrol, but check before you set off.

Fuel is sold per litre (1 US gallon is equivalent to 3.8 litres).

South African petrol stations are not self-help: an attendant will fill the car, ask if you'd like your oil and water and tyre pressure checked, and offer to clean your windscreen – a service for which they are generally tipped around R5.

Fuel stations – or garages, as South Africans call them – are found on both the main and country roads, most of them open 24 hours a day, although some keep shorter hours. However, distances between towns (and therefore between petrol stations) are considerable in some parts of the country, so remember to check the fuel gauge before passing up the opportunity to fill up.

When it comes to paying for fuel, you can pay cash or use your credit card. Historically, filling stations used to be cash-only operations so some smaller stations may still not accept cards. Check with the attendant what payment method they accept before filling up. Many filling stations have on-site ATM machines.

Driving around the country

Our road infrastructure is excellent, so driving between cities and towns is a viable option – and, given the stunning scenery in many parts of the country, a highly enjoyable one.

However, South Africa is a huge country not easily traversed in a day, so plan your journeys carefully. If you're not used to driving long distances, rather break the journey, as fatigue is a major contributing factor in motor vehicle accidents.

While most national roads are tarred and in good condition, the more rural the road, the more likely it is to be pot-holed and poorly surfaced.

Road info, maps

Current information on the conditions of roads can be obtained through the Automobile Association of South Africa. The AA also provides invaluable guides for road users in the form of strip maps tailored for specific destinations and information for tourists on accommodation en route.

Traffic signs are generally pictorial or in English.

Toll roads and e-tolls

Before you set off, check your route. Many of the national roads between the major centres are toll roads. Check the fees before you leave, and make sure that you have either a credit card or cash to pay.

Toll fares for a light passenger vehicle vary from under R10 to around R200, depending on the toll plaza – and you may pass through three or four of these before you reach your destination.

Electronic toll collection (or e-tolls) is in place in Gauteng. Your car has to be identified electronically, via an e-tag for example, and a toll is deducted from a toll account. Visitors to Gauteng can register for an e-toll account, or buy day passes. Visit SA National Road Agency's e-toll website for more info.

Safety

South Africa has a high rate of traffic accidents so drive defensively and exercise caution when on the roads – especially at night – and keep a wary eye out for pedestrians and cyclists.

Drivers of minibuses and taxis can behave erratically, and often turn a blind eye to rules and road safety considerations.

In many of South Africa's rural areas, the roads are not fenced, so watch out dogs, chickens, sheep and even horses or cows on the road. These can be particularly hazardous at night.

Large antelope crossing the road can also pose a danger in certain areas – if you see road signs depicting a leaping antelope, take it slowly, especially towards evening.

Never stop to feed wild animals – it is dangerous and you can incur a hefty fine if you do so.

In general, be aware and keep your wits about you. It's a good idea to drive with your doors locked and windows up, especially in cities and at traffic lights.

Don't ever stop to pick up hitchhikers. If you are worried about someone on the side of the road, report it to the police station in the next town.

Ensure your car is locked when you park it and do not leave anything in sight. Lock things away in the trunk – known as the boot here – or the glove compartment (cubbyhole).

Emergency numbers to save into your phone:
  • From your mobile: (082) 112
  • Rescue: 10177
  • Police: 10111

SAinfo reporter

Reviewed: February 2014
Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See: Using SAinfo material

SA targets 1.5m public works jobs

Aat Morfat practises pointman duties on Louis Botha Avenue, Johannesburg as part of a community outreach programme training young people to be traffic wardens (Photo: Chris Kirchhoff, MediaClubSouthAfrica.com)

Maps of South Africa

Maps of South Africa

Find out exactly where you're going with these handy map websites.

Photo galleries

South Africa's coastline

From the cold Atlantic of the northern Cape to the diver's paradise of Sodwana Bay.

Mountains and rivers

South Africa is big sky country, with vast mountain ranges falling into lush river valleys.

Countryside

Step out of South Africa's urban centres and discover a country of contrasts.

National parks

Kgalagadi's desert, Kruger's wildlife, Mapungubwe's ancient heritage, and more.

MediaClubSouthAfrica

MediaClubSouthAfrica.com

Helping the media cover the South African story >

Weather forecasts

South Africa weather forecasts

Snap daily forecasts for 20 cities and
towns. >