Why do some countries drive on the right

and others on the left ?

Thanks to Conrad H. McGregor for this article, for more information please visit http://users.pandora.be/worldstandards/index.htm

History and origin

About a quarter of the world drives on the left, and the countries that do are mostly old British colonies. This strange quirk perplexes the rest of the world; but there is a perfectly good reason.

In the past, almost everybody travelled on the left side of the road because that was the most sensible option for feudal, violent societies. Since most people are right-handed, swordsmen preferred to keep to the left in order to have their right arm nearer to an opponent and their scabbard further from him. Moreover, it reduced the chance of the scabbard (worn on the left) hitting other people.

Furthermore, a right-handed person finds it easier to mount a horse from the left side of the horse, and it would be very difficult to do otherwise if wearing a sword (which would be worn on the left). It is safer to mount and dismount towards the side of the road, rather than in the middle of traffic, so if one mounts on the left, then the horse should be ridden on the left side of the road.

In the late 1700s, however, teamsters in France and the United States began hauling farm products in big wagons pulled by several pairs of horses. These wagons had no driver's seat; instead the driver sat on the left rear horse, so he could keep his right arm free to lash the team. Since he was sitting on the left, he naturally wanted everybody to pass on the left so he could look down and make sure he kept clear of the oncoming wagon’s wheels. Therefore he kept to the right side of the road.

In addition, the French Revolution of 1789 gave a huge impetus to right-hand travel in Europe. The fact is, before the Revolution, the aristocracy travelled on the left of the road, forcing the peasantry over to the right, but after the storming of the Bastille and the subsequent events, aristocrats preferred to keep a low profile and joined the peasants on the right. An official keep-right rule was introduced in Paris in 1794, more or less parallel to Denmark, where driving on the right had been made compulsory in 1793.

Later, Napoleon's conquests spread the new rightism to the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Russia and many parts of Spain and Italy. The states that had resisted Napoleon kept left – Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Portugal. This European division, between the left- and right-hand nations would remain fixed for more than 100 years, until after the First World War.

Although left-driving Sweden ceded Finland to right-driving Russia after the Russo-Swedish War (1808-1809), Swedish law – including traffic regulations – remained valid in Finland for another 50 years. It wasn’t until 1858 that an Imperial Russian decree made Finland swap sides.

The trend among nations over the years has been toward driving on the right, but Britain has done its best to stave off global homogenisation. With the expansion of travel and road building in the 1800s, traffic regulations were made in every country. Left-hand driving was made mandatory in Britain in 1835. Countries which were part of the British Empire followed suit. This is why to this very day, India, Australasia and the former British colonies in Africa go left. An exception to the rule, however, is Egypt, which had been conquered by Napoleon before becoming a British dependency.

Although Japan was never part of the British Empire, its traffic also goes to the left. Although the origin of this habit goes back to the Edo period (1603-1867) when Samurai ruled the country, it wasn’t until 1872 that this unwritten rule became more or less official. That was the year when Japan’s first railway was introduced, built with technical aid from the British. Gradually, a massive network of railways and tram tracks was built, and of course all trains and trams drove on the left-hand side. Still, it took another half century till in 1924 left-side driving was clearly written in a law.

When the Dutch arrived in Indonesia in 1596, they brought along their habit of driving on the left. It wasn't until Napoleon conquered the Netherlands that the Dutch started driving on the right. Most of their colonies, however, remained on the left as did Indonesia and Suriname.

In the early years of English colonisation of North America, English driving customs were followed and the colonies drove on the left. After gaining independence from England, however, they were anxious to cast off all remaining links with their British colonial past and gradually changed to right-hand driving. (Incidentally, the influence of other European countries’ nationals should not be underestimated.) The first law requiring drivers to keep right was passed in Pennsylvania in 1792, and similar laws were passed in New York in 1804 and New Jersey in 1813.

Despite the developments in the US, some parts of Canada continued to drive on the left until shortly after the Second World War. The territory controlled by the French (from Quebec to Louisiana) drove on the right, but the territory occupied by the English (British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland) kept left. British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces switched to the right in the 1920s in order to conform with the rest of Canada and the USA. Newfoundland drove on the left until 1947, and joined Canada in 1949.

In Europe, the remaining left-driving countries switched one by one to driving on the right. Portugal changed in 1920s. The change took place on the same day in the whole country, including the colonies. Territories, however, which bordered other left-driving countries were exempted. That is why Macau, Goa (now part of India) and Portuguese East Africa kept the old system. East Timor, which borders left-driving Indonesia, did change to the right though, but left-hand traffic was reintroduced by the Indonesians in 1975.

In Italy the practice of driving on the right first began in the late 1890s. The first Italian Highway Code, issued on the 30th of June 1912, stated that all vehicles had to drive on the right. Cities with a tram network, however, could retain left-hand driving if they placed warning signs at their city borders. The 1923 decree is a bit stricter, but Rome and the northern cities of Milan, Turin and Genoa could still keep left until further orders from the Ministry of Public Works. By the mid-1920s, right-hand driving became finally standard throughout the country. Rome made the change on the 1 of March 1925 and Milan on the 3rd of August 1926.

Up till the 1930s Spain lacked national traffic regulations. Some parts of the country drove on the right (e.g. Barcelona) and other parts drove on the left (e.g. Madrid). On the 1st of October 1924 Madrid switched to driving on the right.

The break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire caused no change: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Hungary continued to drive on the left. Austria itself was something of a curiosity. Half the country drove on the left and half on the right. The dividing line was precisely the area affected by Napoleon's conquests in 1805.

When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Hitler ordered that the traffic should change from the left to the right side of the road, overnight. The change threw the driving public into turmoil, because motorists were unable to see most road signs. In Vienna it proved impossible to change the trams overnight, so while all other traffic took to the right-hand side of the road, the trams continued to run on the left for several weeks. Czechoslovakia and Hungary, one of the last states on the mainland of Europe to keep left, changed to the right after being invaded by Germany in 1939.

Meanwhile, the power of the right kept growing steadily. American cars were designed to be driven on the right by locating the drivers' controls on the vehicle's left side. With the mass production of reliable and economical cars in the United States, initial exports used the same design, and out of necessity many countries changed their rule of the road.

Gibraltar changed to right-hand traffic in 1929 and China in 1946. Korea now drives right, but only because it passed directly from Japanese colonial rule to American and Russian influence at the end of the Second World War. Pakistan also considered changing to the right in the 1960s, but ultimately decided not to do it. The main argument against the shift was that camel trains often drove through the night while their drivers were dozing. The difficulty in teaching old camels new tricks was decisive in forcing Pakistan to reject the change. Nigeria, a former British colony, had traditionally been driving on the left with British imported right-hand-drive cars, but when it gained independence, it tried to throw off its colonial past as quick as possible and shifted to driving on the right.

After the Second World War, left-driving Sweden, the odd one out in mainland Europe, felt increasing pressure to change sides in order to conform with the rest of the continent. The problem was that all their neighbours already drove on the right side and since there are a lot of small roads without border guards leading into Norway and Finland, one had to remember in which country one was.

In 1955, the Swedish government held a referendum on the introduction of right-hand driving. Although no less than 82.9% voted “no” to the plebiscite, the Swedish parliament passed a law on the conversion to right-hand driving in 1963. Finally, the change took place on Sunday, the 3rd of September 1967, at 5 o’clock in the morning.

All traffic with private motor-driven vehicles was prohibited four hours before and one hour after the conversion, in order to be able to rearrange all traffic signs. Even the army was called in to help. Also a very low speed limit was applied, which was raised in a number of steps. The whole process took about a month. After Sweden's successful changeover, Iceland changed the following year, in 1968.

In the 1960s, Great Britain also considered changing, but the country’s conservative powers did everything they could to nip the proposal in the bud. Furthermore, the fact that it would cost billions of pounds to change everything round wasn’t much of an incentive… Eventually, Britain dropped the idea. Today, only four European countries still drive on the left: the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta.


List of left-driving countries

The following is a list of countries of the world whose inhabitants drive on the left-hand side of the road. Most of the drivers of these countries use right-hand-drive vehicles.

1. Anguilla
2. Antigua and Barbuda
3. Australia
4. Bahamas
5. Bangladesh
6. Barbados
7. Bermuda
8. Bhutan
9. Botswana
10. Brunei
11. Cayman Islands
12. Christmas Island (Australia)
13. Cook Islands
14. Cyprus
15. Dominica
16. East Timor
17. Falkland Islands
18. Fiji
19. Grenada
20. Guernsey (Channel Islands)
21. Guyana
22. Hong Kong
23. India
24. Indonesia
25. Ireland
26. Isle of Man
27. Jamaica
28. Japan
29. Jersey (Channel Islands)
30. Kenya
31. Kiribati
32. Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia)
33. Lesotho
34. Macau
35. Malawi
36. Malaysia
37. Maldives
38. Malta
39. Mauritius
40. Montserrat
41. Mozambique
42. Namibia
43. Nauru
44. Nepal
45. New Zealand
46. Niue
47. Norfolk Island (Australia)
48. Pakistan
49. Papua New Guinea
50. Pitcairn Islands (Britain)
51. Saint Helena
52. Saint Kitts and Nevis
53. Saint Lucia
54. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
55. Seychelles
56. Singapore
57. Solomon Islands
58. South Africa
59. Sri Lanka
60 . Suriname
61 . Swaziland
62. Tanzania
63. Thailand
64. Tokelau (New Zealand)
65. Tonga
66. Trinidad and Tobago
67. Turks and Caicos Islands
68. Tuvalu
69. Uganda
70. United Kingdom
71. Virgin Islands (British)
72. Virgin Islands (US)
73. Zambia
74. Zimbabwe


List of right-driving countries

The following is a list of countries of the world whose inhabitants drive on the right-hand side of the road. Most of the drivers of these countries use left-hand-drive vehicles.

1. Afghanistan
2. Albania
3. Algeria
4. American Samoa
5. Andorra
6. Angola
7. Argentina
8. Armenia
9. Aruba
10. Austria
11. Azerbaijan
12. Bahrain
13. Belarus
14. Belgium
15. Belize
16. Benin
17. Bolivia
18. Bosnia and Herzegovina
19. Brazil
20. British Indian Ocean Territory (Diego García)
21. Bulgaria
22. Burkina Faso
23. Burundi
24. Cambodia
25. Cameroon
26. Canada
27. Cape Verde
28. Central African Republic
29. Chad
30. Chile
31. China, People's Republic of (Mainland China)
32. Colombia
33. Comoros
34. Congo
35. Congo (former Republic of Zaire)
36. Costa Rica
37. Croatia
38. Cuba
39. Czech Republic
40. Denmark
41. Djibouti
42. Dominican Republic
43. Ecuador
44. Egypt
45. El Salvador
46. Equatorial Guinea
47. Eritrea
48. Estonia
49. Ethiopia
50. Faroe Islands (Denmark)
51. Finland
52. France
53. French Guiana
54. French Polynesia
55. Gabon
56. Gambia, The
57. Gaza Strip
58. Georgia
59. Germany
60. Ghana
61. Gibraltar
62. Greece
63. Greenland
64. Guadeloupe (French West Indies)
65. Guam
66. Guatemala
67. Guinea
68. Guinea-Bissau
69. Haiti
70. Honduras
71. Hungary
72. Iceland
73. Iran
74. Iraq
75. Israel
76. Italy
77. Ivory Coast
78. Jordan
79. Kazakhstan
80. Korea, Democratic People's Republic of (North Korea)
81. Korea, Republic of (South Korea)
82. Kuwait
83. Kyrgyzstan
84. Laos
85. Latvia
86. Lebanon
87. Liberia
88. Libya
89. Liechtenstein
90. Lithuania
91. Luxembourg
92. Macedonia
93. Madagascar
94. Mali
95. Marshall Islands
96. Martinique (French West Indies)
97. Mauritania
98. Mayotte (France)
99. Mexico
100. Micronesia, Federated States of
101. Midway Islands (USA)
102. Moldova
103. Monaco
104. Mongolia
105. Morocco
106. Myanmar (formerly Burma)
107. Netherlands
108. Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, Saba)
109. New Caledonia
110. Nicaragua
111. Niger
112. Nigeria
113. Northern Mariana Islands
114. Norway
115. Oman
116. Palau
117. Panama
118. Paraguay
119. Peru
120. Philippines
121. Poland
122. Portugal
123. Puerto Rico
124. Qatar
125. Réunion
126. Romania
127. Russia
128. Rwanda
129. Saint Barthélemy (French West Indies)
130. Saint Martin (French West Indies)
131. Saint Pierre and Miquelon (France)
132. Samoa
133. San Marino
134. Sao Tome e Principe
135. Saudi Arabia
136. Senegal
137. Serbia and Montenegro
138. Sierra Leone
139. Slovakia
140. Slovenia
141. Somalia
142. Spain
143. Sudan
144. Svalbard (Norway)
145. Sweden
146. Switzerland
147. Syria
148. Taiwan
149. Tajikistan
150. Togo
151. Tunisia
152. Turkey
153. Turkmenistan
154. Ukraine
155. United Arab Emirates
156. United States
157. Uruguay
158. Uzbekistan
159. Vanuatu
160. Venezuela
161. Vietnam
162. Wake Island (USA)
163. Wallis and Futuna Islands (France)
164. West Bank
165. Western Sahara
166. Yemen

Population distribution

As it turns out, some 4 billion people drive right, and 2 billion drive left (when they drive at all, that is). So roughly a third of the world drives on the left.

Some anecdotes…

While some countries have transferred from left to right, the only case recorded of a transfer from right to left is in Okinawa on 30 July 1978.

A newspaper story one April Fool's Day suggested that, to further European integration, the UK was to convert to driving on the right. However, owing to the huge amount of work this conversion would cause, it would be phased in: for the first six months the regulation would only apply to buses and taxis.

Myanmar (formerly Burma) was a British colony until 1948, and drove on the left until 1970, when it changed sides. It is said that the ruler of the country, Ne Win, interpreted a dream to mean that all traffic should keep to the right. However, virtually every vehicle is right-hand-drive, since there are still many old cars and buses driving around and almost all the modern cars are second-hand imports from Japan. You can still even see old traffic lights in downtown Rangoon on the wrong side of the road.


Location of the steering wheel

Almost always, in countries where one drives on the right-hand side of the road, the cars are built so that the driver sits on the left-hand side of the car. Conversely, driving on the left-hand side of the road usually implies that the driver's seat is on the right-hand side of the car. It used to be different, though.

All early automobiles in the USA (driving on the right-hand side of the road) were right-hand-drive, following the practice established by horse-drawn buggies. They changed to left-hand-drive in the early 1900s as it was decided that it was more practical to have the driver seated near the centreline of the road, both to judge the space available when passing oncoming cars, and to allow front-seat passengers to get out of the car onto the pavement instead of into the middle of the street.

Ford changed to left-hand-drive in the 1908 model year. A Ford catalogue from 1908 explains the benefits of placing the controls on the left side of the car:
“The control is located on the left side, the logical place, for the following reasons: Travelling along the right side of the road the steering wheel on the right side of the car made it necessary to get out on the street side and walk around the car. This is awkward and especially inconvenient if there is a lady to be considered. The control on the left allows you to step out of the car on to the curbing without having had to turn the car around.
In the matter of steering with the control on the right, the driver is farthest away from the vehicle he is passing, going in opposite direction; with it on the left side he is able to see even the wheels of the other car and easily avoids danger.”

Nowadays, the driver always sits on the side of the car that is nearest to the centre line. However, there are a few exceptions, among other things certain kinds of specialised service vehicles. For example, street-sweeping vehicles may have the reverse driving position to place the driver next to the gutter. Italian-built trolley buses were right-hand-drive for many years in order to observe the passenger doors better.

Until the mid-60s, all Lancias, even in left-hand-drive Italy, were manufactured as right-hand-drive. Lancia intended the cars to be suitable for use on the Alpine passes, so when driving on the right, the driver was also on the right, and could see the edge of the road. Falling off the edge of the road was considered a greater danger than head-on collisions. Modern Italian trucks in the Alps are still often right-hand-drive for the same reason. Similarly, Spanish buses and trucks were right-hand-drive until the 1950s because of the need to watch for unstable road edges.

Some countries restrict imports of vehicles that have their controls arranged differently from the norm for the country, but foreign tourists are usually allowed to drive their odd vehicles while they visit. Non-standard vehicles may be required to have a sign on the back announcing this, which typically reads, "Right-hand-drive" or "Left-hand-drive" or just "RHD" or "LHD". Cambodia (which drives on the right) banned all right-hand-drive vehicles in January 2001 in order to control imports of stolen and smuggled vehicles from Thailand. It required all car owners to have their vehicles modified so that the steering wheel is on the left or risk confiscation. About 80% of the officially registered vehicles in the country had to be modified in order to comply.

One comfort in all this is that the arrangement of the pedals and the gear shift is the same worldwide. An international standard was arrived at some time ago which determined the order of the pedals, no matter on which side the steering wheel is located. Going from right to left, the order is always “A-B-C”, or accelerator, brake and clutch (if the vehicle has manual transmission). Thanks to this international standard, the driver who lives in a right-hand-drive country and, say, rents a car in a left-hand-drive country, does not have to re-educate himself before he can drive a car which has the steering wheel on the “other” side.

The manual (as opposed to automatic) gear lever pattern is also the same but only for commercial reasons. Since the cost-benefit ratio would not be favourable, the same transmissions are generally used, no matter whether the car is left-hand-drive or right-hand-drive.

One area which is not standardised is the location of the turn signal lever. In most places, the turn signal is mounted on the left side of the steering column. This includes right-hand-drive vehicles in the UK, and left-hand-drive vehicles in America and continental Europe. Vehicles built in Australia and Japan, however, have the turn signal lever mounted on the right. At one time this meant that cars made by Nissan in Britain had the signals and wiper controls one way round, but cars made by Nissan in Japan for the British market had them the opposite way round. In recent years most Japanese cars sold in the British Isles seem to conform to the European convention.

Cars driven on the right side of the road usually have headlights which are aimed slightly to the right when not on full beam, and vice-versa with cars intended to be driven on the left. In Europe, it is common for travellers from the UK to affix deflectors to their headlights to prevent them dazzling oncoming drivers when driving on the "wrong" side of the road. Also, windscreen wipers are usually aligned to give more coverage to the driver's side than to the passenger side.

Japanese people sometimes import left-hand-drive models of cars, whereas the standard Japanese car in Japan is right-hand-drive. This is done purely for prestige. A Mercedes or BMW with the steering wheel on the left is seen as more authentic and carries something of a cachet. It is also more expensive than the right-hand-drive version of the same vehicle.


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