A car travelled at least 2.8km backwards on a busy Whangarei street before engine troubles forced the driver with four others in the vehicle to pull over in a cloud of smoke.

A driver travelling immediately behind the reversing car described the experience as "scary" and was signalling to them to get off the road.

The drama began just after 3pm on Wednesday when nurse Juanita Bassett was at Whangarei Hospital waiting to pull out on to Maunu Rd and head west.

She spotted the dark-coloured car "roaring backwards". "When I initially saw it I thought 'What's wrong with this car?' and it didn't register immediately what I was seeing."

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As she followed a safe distance behind, and videoed the incident, she could see five young men in the car.

"It was really weird having everyone in the car looking back at me as I drove along."

She keep waving at them to pull over and she could see the driver was having to turn around and look over his shoulder in order to navigate his way.

One passenger could be seen with his arm out the window using his phone to capture the illegal action.

"It was a bit scary because if there had of been a kid who stepped off the footpath it would have been difficult for the driver to react," Ms Bassett said.

The car travelled up Maunu Hill and was in a line of traffic before smoke started appearing from under the car. The driver pulled off the road near Pompallier College and Ms Bassett kept driving.

While police were unaware whether the driving had been reported at the time they confirmed it was illegal.

Northland's top traffic cop, Inspector Wayne Ewers, said the driver could be charged with careless driving or even reckless or dangerous driving depending on the circumstances.

"There are a number of reasons why this would be considered a rather stupid thing to do, the driver having a lack of control over the vehicle, unclear vision, vehicles not designed to be driven even at the speed limit in reverse, difficult to control especially in an emergency, lights facing in the wrong direction and the difficulties facing motorists who maybe approaching the vehicle," Mr Ewers said.

He encouraged members of the public who observe such actions to report such instances immediately.