Left or Right? Why Some Countries Drive on the Other Side of the Road

December 9, 2014

Drive on the left kent 1bAbout 65% of the world drives on the right side of the road all others drive on the left.  What is the origin of driving on the left side of the road, and are they right?

Cspectacular knight 216680 1280ountries that continue to drive on the left side of the road are mainly those places that used to be British colonies.  In the old days, most people used the left side of the road.  It had to do with safety and security, and the avoidance of getting killed.  Anyone with a sword preferred the left side of the road.  This enabled the swordsman to keep their right arm close to an opponent and their sword away from them on the other side.  In addition, a horse is easier to mount from the left side for a right-handed person.  It just made good sense.  A rider could mount their horse on the side of the road instead of in the middle where they could clog up traffic and make the peasant folk angry.  So how did it change to the right?

The shift can be traced back to the 1700’s when teams would haul farm products to market pulled by several horses.  The products were carried in large wagons and the driver would ride the rear horse on the left.  This allowed him to drive the team with his right arm while keeping an eye out as people passed on the left.  It also allowed the driver of the team to make sure he didn’t run into other wagons. 

In 1752, Empress Elizabeth of Russia officially declared that traffic must keep to the right, as was the custom for the country at the time.  The practice became more widespread in 1789 during the French Revolution.  An official rule for right-hand driving was made in Paris in 1794.  There was an interesting reason for this change.  Before the revolution, aristocracy traveled on the left-hand side of the road, forcing peasants to the right.  Later on, the aristocracy began using the right side of the road to blend in with the peasants thus cementing France’s drive to the right.  Denmark was the next major country to follow and adopted the right-hand rule in 1793.

Napoleon spread driving on the right further.  As he conquered different countries, they were forced to adopt the right-hand rule.  Only the countries that had denied Napoleon’s attacks kept their left-hand of the road rules.

The United Kingdom persevered throughout it all and kept their left side road driving.  They made it official and mandatory in 1835.  All the countries in the British Empire followed this same rule.  After the breakup of the British Empire, all of the countries that had been former British colonies kept the left-hand rule except for Egypt, which had been conquered by Napoleon before the British got there.   Napoleon even got the Dutch to drive on the right when he conquered the Netherlands, but their colonies remained driving on the left.

In early America, since it was a British colony, the driving custom was on the left.  It wasn’t until the American Revolution when Americans wanted to cut all ties with Britain that they started driving on the right.  Even in Canada there was a divide.  The French portion drove on the right, and the British areas drove on the left.  It wasn’t until the 1920’s before most of Canada agreed on the right side, with the exception of Newfoundland which joined Canada in 1949.

Over the years, countries in Europe slowly began to change due to influences from World War II and the pervasiveness of the American car, which had the steering wheel on the left.  Only four European countries remain with left side driving; the United Kingdom, Malta, Cyprus, and Ireland.  The United Kingdom even played around with the idea of switching to the right in the 1960’s, but they discovered it would be cost prohibitive and the political pressures to remain on the left were too great.

The Countries with Right-Hand or Left-Hand Traffic

Countries driving on the left or right.svg
Red Drive on the Right, Blue on the Left

Some Great Facts About Driving on the Left

There have been only three countries that have gone from right to left hand driving.  East Timor did it in 1975, Okinawa in 1978, and Somoa in 2009, mainly because they wanted to import cheaper cars from the left-hand countries of Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

In Myanmar they drove on the left until 1970 when General Ne Win, the ruler at the time, ordered everyone to the right.  What was interesting was that he supposedly got the advice to do so from a wizard.  The problem is most every vehicle in the country has a right-handed steering wheel, and there are still old traffic lights in Rangoon that are on the wrong side of the road.

If you plan to drive in the Bahamas, where they drive on the left, don’t be surprised if you get a rental car with a left hand steering wheel.  Due to its location near the United States, many of the cars there are American made.  That makes for some interesting driving, as some people have reported.

It’s legal to drive a right-hand drive car in the U.S. as long as it has the necessary registrations and passes all the American laws and regulations in place for that particular car.

In the U.S. you can buy and drive a right-hand steering postal vehicle but only when it has been retired from service.

Have you had an interesting experience driving on the “wrong” side of the road?  Feel free to comment below.

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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