Why Some Countries Drive on the Other Side of the Road

December 10, 2021

Sign telling drivers to drive on the left.

About 65% of the world drives on the right side of the road. Everyone else drives on the left. What is the origin of driving on the left side of the road, and is it right or wrong?

Countries that continue to drive on the left side of the road are mainly those places that used to be British colonies. In medieval 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 left side of their body.

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 left 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 1700s 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-side driving was made in Paris in 1794.

There was an interesting reason for this change. Before the revolution, the aristocracy traveled on the left 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-side rule in 1793.

Napoleon spread driving on the right further. As he conquered different countries, they were forced to adopt the right-side rule. Only the countries that had denied Napoleon’s attacks kept their left side 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-side 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 continued to drive 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 began 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 1920s 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 1960s, but they discovered it would be cost prohibitive, and the political pressures to remain on the left were too great.

World map of drive rules for left or right.
Red Drive on the Right, Blue on the Left

Some Great Facts About Left Side Driving

There have been only three places that have gone from right to left side driving. East Timor did it in 1975, Okinawa, Japan, converted in 1978 because it had been administered by the U.S. after World War II, and Samoa in 2009, mainly because they wanted to import cheaper cars from the left-side driving 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 was, almost every vehicle in the country had a right-sided steering wheel, and there are still old traffic lights in Rangoon that are on the wrong side of the road.

On September 3, 1967, at 5:00 AM, Sweden moved from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right on what they called H Day. The H stood for Högertrafikomläggningen, or the Right-Hand Traffic Diversion. Eighty-three percent of Swedes opposed the move in 1955, but in 1963, the Swedish Parliament voted for the switch since Sweden’s neighbors all drove on the right and because many cars in Sweden had the steering wheel on the left (which was believed to be the cause of more accidents).

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-side 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-sided steering 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 US, you can buy and drive a right-sided steering postal vehicle but only when it has been retired from service.

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About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites (you can find out how to join below). I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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