Why Some Countries Drive On The Left And Why It’s Better

Wrongside Top

I’ve spent a lot of time driving in England, which is a thing that happens when you marry an English woman. I enjoy many things about being in England but one of my favorite is driving there. English roads, especially the back roads or “B” roads as they are called, are the best. They are narrow and almost never straight. You are always in a corner of some sort. The roads are also almost never flat. They dip and dive constantly and a good car will flow and glide smoothly over these undulations. When you find a car that does this well it’s an absolute joy. Steering also has to be precise since there is no room for error; the roads are simply too narrow.

The other aspect of driving in England I really like is driving on the left. For an American, it totally screws with your mind. You’re driving on the “wrong” side of the road. You’re sitting on the “wrong” side of the car, you’re trying to shift with your left hand, and the mirrors are all in the “wrong” places. You’re very aware of how concentrated you need to be on the act of driving while at the same time navigating roads that are more like a funfair ride than actual roads. Get it right, though, and it’s an absolute blast!

The whole thing got me thinking of why do the English drive on the left while we Americans, and most of the rest of the world, drive on the right? So I did some research and here’s what I found.

Lr Map

England is certainly not the only country that drives on the left. In fact, about 35% of the world’s population drive on the left including Japan, Malta, Cyprus, Indonesia, Ireland and most of the old English empire countries: India, Australia, New Zealand, and a number of African countries. The history of driving on the left goes back many centuries to the time of knights and castles. Like today, most people in the time of knights were right handed so they would have held their swords in their right hand and carried them on the left side of their body. When meeting another person coming towards them on the road, it was natural to be on the left side of the path since that would allow them to offer a hand in greeting or defend themselves should they get attacked. It also kept their swords away from the passerby should they try to steal it.

Knight

Since knights wore their swords on their left side, they would mount their horses from the left as well since that way the sword would not get in their way. It then made sense to place the horse against the left curb so they would be able to mount their horses from the curb, not the middle of the street.

There is even evidence to suggest that driving on the left goes back way farther than that. In 1998, a road leading to an old Roman quarry was excavated in England. The ruts in the road were significantly deeper on the left side of the road leading away from the quarry than the right side. Since the carts would have been much heavier leaving the quarry than returning to it, it suggests that the carts leaving the quarry were driving on the left side of the road.

Pope

A little later, in the year 1300, Pope Boniface VIII decreed that all pilgrims traveling to Rome should keep to the left.

Later still, in the mid 1700’s, traffic on London Bridge was getting so bad and chaotic that in 1756, a law was passed requiring all traffic on the bridge to keep to the left. This was later codified nationally in 1835 in the British National Highway Code.

More recently, in 1969 a study showed that left driving countries had lower accident rates. It was suggested that this is because the right eye and the right hand are dominant in most people. When driving on the left, the right eye is what you use to see down the road past the car in front of you and in the rearview mirror and the right hand stays on the wheel while the left hand works the gearshift and the radio knobs.

Knowing all of this, the real question becomes “why doesn’t everyone drive on the left?” The answer to this question is a bit muddier but it seems to have started in the late 1700’s with the advent of large wagons used for hauling goods. These wagons were pulled by several pairs of horses and did not have a driver’s seat so the driver would sit on the left rear horse so that his right hand was free to use the whip. Since he sat on the left, he would want to pass oncoming wagons on the right so he could see how close his wheels were to the oncoming traffic. There wasn’t much need for such large wagons in Britain since the roads were much smaller and distances shorter so they never became popular there.

At about the same time, Napoleon was doing his marauding across much of Europe and he decreed that France would drive on the right just because he was ornery and wanted everything anti-British. It was also because the French aristocracy drove on the left and he wanted nothing to do with those clowns. Lastly, we believe he was left handed so he probably wore his sword on the right and mounted his horse from the right. Who knows? What we do know is that he wanted everyone to drive on the right and he made it a rule in all the countries he invaded which did NOT include England. Remember Waterloo? Yeah, me neither. Suffice it to say that Napoleon was stopped in his tracks before he reached England. So, England stayed driving on the left.

Modelt

About 100 years later, as automobiles started to come on the scene, it was a bit of a free-for-all as to which side of the car the steering wheel was on. This included the US, but when Henry Ford came out with the Model T, he put the steering wheel on the left side. Since this car was such a huge success, left hand drive took over the industry and became the norm.

During the 20th century, there was a movement in Europe to standardize the rules of the road which meant everyone had to drive on the right. The last European country to make the shift was Sweden on September 3, 1967. At 4:50 AM, after spending over $120 million on education and new road signs, all traffic in the country stopped and after 10 minutes restarted on the right side of the road. Can you imagine something like that happening today? Well, it did in Samoa in 2009. They switched from driving on the right side of the road to the left side to be like their closest neighbors Australia and New Zealand.

Will other countries make a switch in the future? Who knows, but what I do know is that there is about a ⅓ to ⅔ split in countries driving on the left vs the right so if you want to go on vacation in countries that drive on the other side, keep an open mind because it really is a lot of fun and a great challenge for anyone who loves driving.

 

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80 Responses

  1. Another case of switching from left to right: Okinawa in the late 70s. Was left hand because of the major post war American presence. I remember then converting buses to have doors on both sides.
    I could have this wrong as it may have just been the US base that was switching.

  2. >>>… The whole thing got me thinking of why do the English drive on the left while we Americans, and most of the rest of the world, drive on the right….<<<

    Because the British are correct in everything they do, and other countries are wrong.

      1. well, they also cannot seem to let the past go, they have kings and queens and knights, though all symbolic only.

        Warm Beer and Blood sausages too. not because they are good, just because they are “proper” based upon some era in the past.

  3. Nice one. Thanks

    I could have used an explanation on why some very old french and italian sport cars has the steering wheel on the left side. As far as I have heard it’s something about beeing able to see the side of the road, which could be important if you are on a narrow dirt road in the mountains, but I’m not sure of that.

    1. Or worse, driving a large US car/truck in the UK. Not only are you driving a LHD on the left, but the vehicle is the width of a bus.
      I’ve seen an F250 (a Harley Davidson edition no less) street parked near me, and it’s hilariously out of place.

  4. Things I loved about driving in the British Isles:

    1. Preference for Yields over Stops and small roundabouts that are basically 4-way yields.
    2. 3-lane roads (one lane in either direction, with a center passing lane)
    3. Higher speeds on B roads between villages than would be common in the US. (At least in PA)
    4. The fact that people gazed at you in awe and terror if you mentioned that you were doing a 5-6 hour drive *in one day*.

    Things I hated:
    1. Uncommonness of signs after a major interchange telling you which road you’re on which way you’re going. (Rt 40 E, for instance.) You really don’t realize how nice those are to have in a strange area until they’re not there.
    2. The omnipresent HEDGE 3 inches from the road.
    3. Driving a car rented in Ireland (speedo in KPH) in Northern Ireland (road signs in MPH).
    4. Speed cameras EVERYWHERE.

    1. I went to Ireland for my honeymoon right as they were changing the road signs from MPH to KPH. It was also weird because the signs for distance were already in kilometers, but whenever you asked for directions, people told you the distance in miles. This was pre-smartphone, post-slide-rule and our car’s speedo and tripometer were also metric. The bad news is that we made a lot of errors, but the good news is that the Irish people are a delight and very courteous to clueless American visitors.

  5. Drove in England and France on a trip to Europe a few years back, switching sides wasn’t that big a deal on the main roads, but I sometime had to take a moment to orient myself properly after taking a turn on a side street. Driving the back roads in the South of France, pre-gps, the map had route numbers for the roads, the road signs mostly just said what the name of the next town the road took you to. Once that was figured out it worked pretty well.

  6. Most people are right-handed. Most of the controls you need to manipulate are towards the centre of the car, so it makes sense for that centre to be on the right side of the driver. Only very few controls are outside of the wheel, and the few that are even a klutzy right-handed person can operate with the left hand.

  7. This all makes sense to me except the bit about wagons that did not have a driver’s seat so the driver. I have never heard of or seen an image of a horse drawn wagon that had no seat for the driver. Other than the article you linked to, I could not find any mention of this in a internet search, though I admit I didn’t spend much time on it. Why would they omit a driver’s seat? With a seat you would be able to sit higher and have a better view, like people go on about with SUVs. Additionally, if you are sitting on the horse you would sit ahead of the wagon wheels, so you would have to turn around while watching where you are going to avoid oncoming wagons. That doesn’t make sense. I am not saying it isn’t true, but is does seem like a really weird explanation to me.

  8. It is also deadly. Last time I looked around 40 deaths in the UK from tourists on the wrong side of the road.
    Similar number in France.
    Almost always off motorways / autoroutes, and very often head on. Latest story I heard was an idiot Brit who managed to crash into a scooter, head on, which had its light on, killing the grandpa driving and smashing the leg of his grandson, aged 14.
    When I have to switch I have a large Drive Left / Right sign stuck to the dashboard. For me danger points are always intersections, it is too easy to pull out on to the wrong side.

  9. Interesting article, love the picture of the TR3, which either has a 5/4 scale car, or 3/4 scale people in it, depending on how you look at it. Making the cars look bigger was a huge thing in the graphic art used in the middle of the last century, more for your money? don’t ever want to feel/look cramped? just sort of a style that took hold?

  10. Gee, you did come across my old paper that I wrote for the English class at the university in the late 1980s, didn’t you? I chose this topic since I was (and still am) petrolhead and since lot of my classmates chose something so common (royal family, British history, etc.). My paper was only one that didn’t put the class to sleep and earned the high marks for most interesting topic.

    Anyway, Switzerland in the 1950s almost considered mandating the RHD vehicles due to many mountain passes that are too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other comfortably. Driving the RHD vehicles on the right-hand rule of roads would make it easier for the drivers to move closer and closer to the outer edges, giving more passing room. Like many cuckoo clocks, the idea was too cuckoo and dropped.

    Samoa switched to left-hand-rule of road due to the cheaper access to the RHD vehicles sourced from the neighbouring countries close-by. Otherwise, shipping the LHD vehicles to the islands in the middle of Pacific Ocean raised the retail price greatly. Falkland Island (Islas Malvinas) switched from left to right then back to left during the war with Argentina in 1982 and stuck to the left ever since.

    Bolivia doesn’t allow the registrations of second-hand RHD vehicles shipped from Japan. So, the cottage industry abound in converting them to the LHD. Bolivians would just use the LHD dashboards and system from Toyota for most of Toyota models even if the dashboard didn’t fit exactly right. Sometimes, they didn’t bother switching the wipers so they sweep to the left or the headlamps to the correct aim.

  11. One thing I’ve realized about left-hand drive roads since moving to Japan is that on a motorcycle, you can’t give the motorcyclist wave to other riders, because you’d have to take your hand off the throttle to do so.

    1. of course, you should not be removing your hand from a control to wave either way, it is just stupid, but if you needed to do the emergency signals then removing the arm closest to traffic and keeping the throttle would be difficult.

    2. I am surprised they don’t reverse the throttle, brake, and clutch. When I have ridden bicycles in the UK the brakes were reversed as I recall, like they do on cyclocross bikes, albeit for a different reason. Can anyone from a right-hand-drive jurisdiction weigh in on this?

      1. Current UK resident here: bicycles in the UK have the front brake on the right, like all modern motorcycles do. It suits the dominant hand for the majority of the population and also means all two wheeled things have the same major control location.

        Are there countries that set bicycle brakes the wrong way round? Why? Is it to make cyclists who are also motorcyclists have massive crashes?

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