Why does New Zealand drive on the “wrong” side of the road?
Well, it’s one of those trivia questions that can really nag at you until you find an answer. In days of old, logic dictated that when people passed each other on the road they should be in the best possible position to use their sword to protect themselves. As most people are right-handed, they, therefore, keep to their left. This practice was formalized in a Papal Edict by Pope Benefice around 1300AD, who told all his pilgrims to keep to the left.
Make sure you know the rules before you start driving in NZ
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Nothing much changed until 1773 when an increase in horse traffic forced the UK Government to introduce the General Highways Act of 1773 which contained a keep left recommendation. This became a law as part of the Highways Bill in 1835.
Britain’s imperial expansion spread to keep left rule far and wide. This included India, Australasia, and much of Africa (Although many African countries changed to the right later when they became independent).
But what about Japan? Well, in the 1850s, Gunboat diplomacy forced the Japanese to open their ports to the British and Sir Rutherford Alcock, who was Queen Victoria’s man in the Japanese court, persuaded them to adopt the keep left rule.
Reasons to travel on the right are less clear, but the generally accepted version of history is as follows: The French, being Catholics, followed Pope Boniface’s edict, but in the build-up to the French Revolution in 1790 the French Aristocracy drove their carriages at great speed on the left-hand side of the road, forcing the peasantry over to the right side for their safety.
Come the Revolution, instincts of self-preservation resulted in the remains of the Aristocracy joining the peasants on the right-hand side of the road. The first official record of this was a keep right rule introduced in Paris in 1794 Very early motorcars followed the principle of a horse-driven carriage and the chauffeur was seated in the middle.
Once the owners of the vehicles realized what fun they were to drive, they wanted their wife/companion to sit with them, so the decision had to be made, which side! The answer is simple: The side of the steering wheel followed the tradition in the country. The Japanese are the world’s largest car producers; they need to produce vehicles for their market and need to export, so will always produce left and right-hand drive vehicles, thereby guaranteeing a supply for the rest of the world. For an overview for visitors about what is different about driving in New Zealand, click here.
Drive safe, keep to the left in New Zealand!