New Zealand yields to world on quirky road rules

NICK PERRY
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Cars dive past an electronic road sign in Wellington New Zealand, Friday, March 23, 2012, alerting motorist of a change to the nation's give way rules. For nearly 20 years, New Zealand has been the only country on Earth to force vehicles making a left turn at an intersection to yield to traffic making a wider arc across the intersection. At 5am on Sunday March 25, the country will align this rule with the rest of the world. (AP Photo/Nick Perry)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand is finally yielding to the rest of the world when it comes to its unique set of road rules, after decades of confounding drivers from overseas.

For nearly 20 years, New Zealand has been the only place on Earth to force vehicles hugging a turn at an intersection to yield to traffic making a wider arc across the intersection. New Zealanders drive on the left, but in the U.S. it would be like making right-turning traffic yield to left-turning traffic.

That will change at 5 a.m. Sunday, when the country reverses the rules. The big question may be what took it so long.

The rules are "universally despised," said Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the car review website www.dogandlemon.com.

"I've had several near accidents with foreigners who were unaware the rule even existed," he said. "The rule was a shambles from the beginning."

Just why New Zealand introduced such a quirky set of rules 35 years ago remains unclear. The Australian state of Victoria also toyed with a similar rule but abandoned it in 1993, leaving New Zealand a lone outlier.

Some argue that the rules encourage civility by allowing cars making the more difficult turn to go first, but defenders are few. Some 77 percent of 6,000 drivers surveyed by the Automobile Association said they thought the changes will have either a neutral or a positive effect on safety.

The New Zealand Transport Agency, which implements road rules, says Sunday's switch will speed traffic flows, reduce accidents and avoid an estimated one fatality and 97 injuries per year.

In the short term, the agency is encouraging extra civility as drivers in the country of 4.4 million adjust to the changes.

Spokesman Andy Knackstedt said the agency is encouraging motorists to give a friendly wave when things go wrong. And to be clear, he said, a one-fingered wave doesn't count as friendly.