It’s back to the bloody and lawless English Middle Ages for the best answer to this one.
Under the constant threat of being robbed, or worse, it was common to carry some sort of defensive weapon – typically, a sword.
It was more efficient to draw your sword from the left-side of your body, as most people were (and still are) right-handed. People passed by on the left so they could swish, slash and hack to the right, if needed.
As the movement of people increased and the speed of travel hastened over the centuries – from horses to horse-driven wagons, carriages, and then motorised vehicles – the tradition of passing on the left stuck.
Take a look at the list of countries who drive on the left and a pattern emerges. Australia, Hong Kong, India, South Africa and, of course, New Zealand, all drive on the left – a legacy of British colonial days.
‘Righties’ include most of Europe, after Napoleon conquered the continent in the 1800s. Legend has it he made the move due to his disgust of all things British, as a show of absolute power, and because he was left-handed.
In the USA, perhaps in a bid to shed its British influence, New York state-regulated right-hand driving in 1804; other states soon followed, but the real deal-breaker came in 1908.
Henry Ford felt that the driver should always be closest to the centre lane, so put the steering wheel on the left of his best-selling Model T Ford. The car’s immense popularity meant that the rest of the car industry followed suit.
Motoring experts believe New Zealand has lost its chance to join the ‘righties.’ It will be just too expensive and too hard to do. If there was an opportunity, it would have been 40-50 years ago, when roads were quieter.
Sweden was the last ‘comparable’ country to make the switch – in 1967. Samoa went the other way in 2009, driven by a need to make car-buying more affordable by ending its reliance on expensive US imports.
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Reported for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue