Why are New Zealand turn signal controls backwards?
July 6, 2011 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Why are turn signal controls on the right side of the steering wheel in New Zealand, but on the left side in the United States and the UK?

Two years ago, I took a trip to New Zealand where I drove around the country. It was my first time driving on the left side of the road (I'm American). One of the challenges of driving was that the turn signal controls were on the right side of the steering wheel and the windshield wiper controls were on the left. This was backwards from my point of view, and I kept activating the windshield wipers whenever I wanted to change lanes. I figured this must be a reality of driving on the left.

I just got back from a trip to the UK where I once again drove on the left, and unexpectedly the turn signal controls were on the left side of the steering wheel - right where I would expect them as an American driver.

Now I'm totally confused. Why are turn signal controls on the right side of the steering wheel in New Zealand? Is this a Toyota thing (both cars I drove in NZ were Toyotas). Could it be something related to the Asian car market? Or do New Zealanders just prefer this configuration? Do other countries work this way?
posted by fremen to Travel & Transportation around New Zealand (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm in the US, and I'm pretty sure I've had different cars that had the turn signals on one side or the other. Also, the wiper control location has been on one side or the other or not on the steering column at all.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:52 AM on July 6, 2011


I can't recall having ever driven a US vehicle with turn signal controls anywhere except on the left. I worked at an auto auction for a couple of summers during college, so I've driven about as many different vehicles as one possible could.

Logically, if you're driving a standard, it would be near impossible to properly shift and signal (during a turn) if the turn signal control was on the right. So, I'm hard pressed to believe I'd ever see one on the right for US (left hand drive) vehicles.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 10:09 AM on July 6, 2011


Oddly, just yesterday I read the entire automatove lighting entry on wikipedia which says this:
In virtually all left-hand drive cars, the signal stalk is on the left side of the column. In right-hand drive cars, the signal stalk may be on either side.[citation needed] If the vehicle's wipers are controlled by a stalk on the opposite side from the signal stalk, a driver unaccustomed to the vehicle may inadvertently activate the wrong control.
Since the vast majority of the world is right-hand traffic, which means left-hand drive, the majority of the world has the turn indicator activation stalk on the left-hand side, but once you get to left-hand traffic with right-hand drive, all bets are off. As to why in NZ? Not sure. I wonder how they are in Australia?

The one big downside I can see to an indicator on the left in a right-hand drive vehicle is one can no longer shift and signal at the same time. That alone would make it seem like something to avoid.
posted by Brian Puccio at 10:12 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


This has nothing to do with the country you're in and everything to do with the make of the car. I've driven cars with both set ups in the UK.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:13 AM on July 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hm. You might be right. Now I have to go check the two vehicles I have convenient and check them. (I may be misremembering.) Certainly, anything with a steering-column shift control is likely to have it on the left, as are stick shift cars.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:13 AM on July 6, 2011


I should note, the above comment is made assuming that all cars in NZ and the UK are as the two you drove and it is designed intentionally this way. It's quite possible it varies from model to model and that international manufacturers, in an effort to save a few dollars/quid/euros, are simply putting the steering column from a left-hard drive vehicle into a right-hand drive vehicle, improper turn indicator activation stalk and all.
posted by Brian Puccio at 10:15 AM on July 6, 2011


Australia does this too: its steering wheel controls are, in my experience at least, a simple reflection of steering wheel controls in the U.S. This puts the indicator near the driver door, rather than near the usual location of the gearstick. I assume the idea is that you can more easily change gear and indicate at the same time.

The brakes on a bicycle are reflected in countries that drive on the left (front brake on the right). This is apparently so that you can brake safely but slowly (using the back brake), while turning against traffic.

But as you say, British cars have indicators on the left. If the ability to change gear is the reason, I guess this is surprising, since manual is more common in the UK than Australia (and certainly than the U.S.) In practice though, this is not a problem in normal driving.
posted by caek at 10:16 AM on July 6, 2011


I wonder how they are in Australia?

I've seen them on both sides. Both my first car (1972 VW beetle) and the car I drive now (Holden from the late '90s), both manual, have the indicator on the left but many have it on the right.

The one big downside I can see to an indicator on the left in a right-hand drive vehicle is one can no longer shift and signal at the same time. That alone would make it seem like something to avoid.

Actually I like it, because as a right-hander I prefer to have my stronger hand on the steering wheel all the time.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 11:08 AM on July 6, 2011


The brakes on a bicycle are reflected in countries that drive on the left (front brake on the right). This is apparently so that you can brake safely but slowly (using the back brake), while turning against traffic.

(I'm pretty sure this has to do with hand-signaling conventions rather than how your hands and traffic affect braking during a turn.)

At any rate, turn signals are designed to be turned on by hand and then de-activated by the return of the steering wheel, which is how one deals with English cars with manual transmissions and left-hand signal controls in the midst of shifting and turning (or cars without power steering, like the '71 VW bus I used to drive). Holding down the indicator didn't used to exist- on my 1956 Mercury, there was no "hold" position, just on or off.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:15 AM on July 6, 2011


My experience with Australian cars is that cars actually built in Australia have the indicator arm on the right of the steering column. I have driven and owned both Falcons and Commodores and both have the indicator there. However, Holdens not actually built in Australia (such as Astras, built in Europe) have it on the left of the column, as they would in Europe. Now I'm in Qatar I know a guy who has a left hand drive "Chevrolet", actually a Holden Commodore. If I remember, I'll check tomorrow and see which side it has the indicator arm on. Does anyone have a "Pontiac GTO" which is actually a left hand drive Monaro?
posted by Logophiliac at 11:31 AM on July 6, 2011


It's always towards the driver side window (left hand side or right hand side driving), so you have the other hand free to change the gear on manual-shift vehicles.
posted by WizKid at 12:29 PM on July 6, 2011


Usually the car makers are lazy when they come to mirroring the car for the other side, and just move the entire steering assembly over as is. Some makers put in more effort and mirror it properly :)
posted by lundman at 6:50 PM on July 6, 2011


I was under the understanding that cars designed specifically for the right hand drive market hand the indicater on the right, whilst those that were designed for other markets and then tweaked for the left hand drive market were often on the left.

The former is much easier to drive. The confusion often leads to "yes I'm turning, can't you tell, my windscreen wipers are on" when driving someone elses car.
posted by kjs4 at 7:23 PM on July 6, 2011


I have driven a number of cars in New Zealand, and found the turn signals and wipers to be on different sides within the same country.

One point that could be of interest is that New Zealand imports many cars directly from Japan. If I recall correctly, the Fords I've driven in NZ were different, but that is based on the assumption that my memory is not worthless.
posted by Metro Gnome at 7:24 PM on July 6, 2011


It basically boils down to European or American-sourced cars being sold in right-hand-drive markets where the manufaturer doesn't want to incur the increased unit cost per vehicle by retooling for a reversed instrument stalk. My XR4 has the indicator on the 'inboard' side of the wheel because the Ford of Europe designed the car originally as a left-hand-drive European model and didn't want to spend more than was strictly necessary on the tooling for the right-hand-drive model (see also: bonnet release being located in the passenger footwell instead of the driver footwell, handbrake lever being slightly on the passenger's side of the car's centre line, and the driver's footwell having less room than the passenger side, with the result that there's no room for a driver's footrest next to the clutch pedal).

Incidentally, it's these same retooling costs that have kept certain vehicles out of right-hand-drive markets entirely. I'd love a new Mustang (a V6 that gets 7.6L per 100km and puts out 305hp? Yes please!), but it wasn't designed with any market outside of the Americas in mind, and I know that there's no way FoMoCo will invest in the costs needed for a right-hand-drive version.

Me personally, I'm pretty much okay with this, especially in a nice sporty manual. Having the indicator stalk on the 'inboard' side of the wheel means that I indicate as my hand leaves the wheel on its way down to the gearshift knob. But I have a friend who has flat-out refused to buy cars that he has otherwise loved because he perceived the manufacturer as being both cheap and disrespectful to their customer by refusing to properly accomodate the right-hand-drive market.
posted by MarchHare at 7:43 PM on July 6, 2011


American living in NZ here.

There's no NZ standard, it just depends on where the car was manufactured. Cars in NZ are imported mainly from Australia and Japan, but from other places as well. The Toyotas you drove while here were undoubtedly manufactured in Japan. While many cars in NZ fit your description, there are plenty of others that don't. From my experience, most of the ones that don't are made in Europe - Citroens, Fiats, Volkswagens, BMWs, etc.

In the American auto market, there's a much higher percentage of cars made in the US, but you'll still occasionally come across an import with the controls flipped. It has nothing to do with you being in the US, only where the car was made - though you'll have a much smaller chance of coming across one that's different in the US than you would in NZ.
posted by hootenatty at 9:12 PM on July 6, 2011


American in Japan with at least a little experience with this.

American cars all have the indicator next to the driver's door, much like how all Japanese cars do. The sole exception I've ever seen to this was an… Audi? sold in Japan with the steering wheel on the right, but the turn signal was toward the center of the car. Odds are, as mentioned, they simply slid the whole steering wheel assembly to the right, since presumably their mainland Europe norm would put the turn signal on the left, next to the driver's door.
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:28 PM on July 6, 2011


More anecdata - my Toyota in Australia (manual, made in Japan) has the indicator on the driver's side door side, but a friend's '06 Golf (manual) has it in the center of the car.
posted by defcom1 at 12:00 AM on July 7, 2011


My mother's Suzuki 4x4 has the indicator stalk on the left, the previous Suzuki 4x4 she owned (same model, much older though) had it on the right.
posted by hardcode at 1:33 AM on July 7, 2011


(I'm pretty sure this has to do with hand-signaling conventions rather than how your hands and traffic affect braking during a turn.)
I wasn't clear, but that's what I meant. It's assumed that while you're turning, one of your hands is indicating (so cannot brake). You want the hand still on the handlebars to be your rear brake hand when you're turning against traffic.

Cyclocross riders in the U.S. often swap their brakes to the UK setup too, which I assume is something to do with the fact that they are often dismounting.

posted by caek at 3:45 AM on July 7, 2011


Late, but I finally got around to asking my colleague with the "Chevrolet". It has the indicator on the right.
posted by Logophiliac at 12:36 AM on July 11, 2011


« Older Baby Rhyme Translation   |   Learning more about fireworks Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.