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Why do some countries drive on the left vs. the right?

Right Hand Drive
Photo: iStockphoto

I'll never forget the shock I experienced on my first trip away from North America, when I tried to cross the street in Dublin, Ireland. I nearly got mowed down by a car I didn't see coming - because I was looking the wrong way down the street.

I was aware that drivers drove on the left in the UK - but force of habit had me looking in the other direction. All of that driving on the left was quite unsettling to someone with my poor sense of spatial relations - I mean, even the steering wheels were on the "wrong" side! I was relieved when I went to Paris for a few days and everyone was driving on the right again, the way nature intended.

Driving on the left isn't just a United Kingdom quirk, of course - there are a whopping 76 countries or territories where the inhabitants drive on the left, vs. 164 countries or territories where driving on the right is mandatory. Obviously, all of North America currently drives on the right - countries that drive on the left include India, Malta, Australia and (this was news to me) Japan.

This handy world map illustrates which countries drive on the right (red) and on the left (blue).

Right-vs-left-trafficPhoto: Wikipedia

How did this split between left-hand and right-hand driving come about? Why couldn't we all just pick a side?

The prevailing theory is that the Romans first started the craze for riding on the left side of the roads, mainly for defence. Like today, most folks back then were right-handed and wore their swords and scabbards on the left. By riding on the left, soldiers could hold their reins in the left hand and wield their swords in the right if they encountered any trouble on the road.

Riding on the left was common (and, in some places, the law) until the late 18th century, when, in countries like France and the US, farmers started driving large loads on big wagons pulled by several horses. The wagon driver would sit on the back left horse to keep his right arm free to drive the teams, so he would keep to the right of the road to avoid getting into accidents with oncoming traffic.

Right-handed driving soon caught on in the US - and, as Napoleon conquered vast swathes of Europe, he enforced France's new right-handing driving style wherever he went. But in places like the UK and their various colonies (India, Australia, much of the Caribbean, Canada) driving on the left remained the norm.

Over time and through both World Wars, as various countries claimed their independence (or were occupied), rules about which side of the road to drive on continued - and continues - to shift. For more background, this article contains a fascinating run down of the history and origins of left vs. right-hand driving

A few fun facts about right vs. left hand driving history include:

    • As a British colony, parts of Canada drove on the left until the 1920's. Newfoundland was the last holdout - they drove on the left until in 1947.

 

    • The Republic of China became a right-hand driving country in 1946; except for Hong Kong and Macau, where they continue to drive on the left, as they did when under British control.

 

  • It's rare for a country to switch from right to left, but that's what Samoa did in September 2009. Part of the reason for the change was Samoa's location - changing from right to left would enable Samoans to purchase less expensive cars from nearby left-driving countries like Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

While the world may one day be united on which is the "correct side" to drive on, the immense cost of changing infrastructure to accommodate driving on the opposite side is prohibitive in today's economy. So for now, best to consult these lists of right- and left-driving countries before you head out on your next driving adventure.

Check out this right- and left-hand traffic article for more about the mechanics of right vs. left-hand driving and specific regulations in each country.

Have you ever driven on the "other" side of the road? Do you own a car with right-hand-drive in a left-hand-drive world? Share your travel tales in the comments!

- Rose R.

Comments

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Justin

This handy world map illustrates which countries drive on the right (blue) and on the left (red).

you mean visa versa. :)

Douglas M

I've been to and driven in Australia twice. After an hour or so of concentration, I found it became easy to drive on the other side of the road from the other side of the car. It took a bit longer to get used to some of the wheel controls, such as the turn signal indicator, being on the other side of the steering wheel, though. That's why the Aussies know you're a tourist if you're driving down the road on a "fine" (sunny and clear) day with the wipers on as you turn left.

MPK

Cool column!

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