Traffic is so bad north of Wellington a passing lane has been closed on State Highway 1 at Te Horo to cope with thousands leaving the capital early for Christmas.

The NZ Transport Agency said traffic was heavy through the area and motorists could expect delays.

The annual Christmas holiday rush is expected to grow across the country today as thousands of motorists take to the roads ahead of December 25.

This week NZTA warned holidaymakers they could expect long queues at traditional bottlenecks for up to eight hours a day starting today.


The agency's system manager Steve Mutton said motorists should prepare for highways to be busy throughout the middle of the day from December 23 to January 4.

Mutton said motorists could make their holiday journeys safer by preparing well, planning ahead and making the right choices.

He said the message to drivers was simple – drive safely.

He said roads across Auckland and Northland were always busy at this time of year so congestion and delays would be inevitable.

But if everyone left plenty of time to reach their destination and drove to the conditions the worst of frustrations could be eased and everyone could concentrate on arriving safely at their destination.

He warned SH1 between Puhoi and Wellsford was one of the busiest sections with northbound congestion building from 9am to midday from Christmas Day to New Year's Eve. Traffic heading south was expected to be heaviest for the first four days of the new year.

Mutton said the Hill St intersection at Warkworth often proved to be a bottleneck due to the thousands of cars passing through the district.

"To ensure these are managed as smoothly as possible traffic cameras at the intersection will be monitored by traffic operators at the Auckland Transport Operations Centre."


He said the traffic light sequencing would be adjusted to allow more vehicles to pass through the intersection depending on the direction of the heaviest traffic flows.

The road toll stands at 369 on the eve of the Christmas Holiday period. Last year 311 people died on the roads.

The toll continued to grow with a passenger killed in the Far North when a car rolled on SH1 at Omanaia.

Shocked by this year's mounting road toll, motorsport legend Greg Murphy has added his voice to the safety message saying the carnage is "horrendous".

"We need to do a better job. It's Christmas time. We don't want to have any more deaths or injuries on our roads. Everyone needs to lift their game and do a better job," he said in a post on Facebook.

"We shouldn't be proud of anything we've got to do with our road toll or accidents on our roads at the moment."

He said people were not paying enough attention, not driving to the conditions or slowing down when they need to.

"Pay attention, no distractions, no phones those kinds of things. When you drive a motor vehicle you concentrate on driving a motor vehicle."

He also warned people to watch out for others on the roads making mistakes.

The official Christmas-New Year holiday period starts at 4pm this afternoon and ends on January 3 at 6am.