History and origin
About 35 per cent 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, 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, among the last states on the mainland of Europe to keep left, changed to the right after being invaded by Germany in 1939 and late 1944 respectively.
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. On 2 April 1972 Nigeria swapped sides and Ghana did the same thing in 1974.
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.
On 7 September 2009 Samoa (population 189,000) became the third country ever to change from right- to left-hand driving. It had been driving on the right since it had become a German colony in the early 20th century, although it was administered by New Zealand after the First World War and gained independence in 1962. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi wanted to swap sides to make it easier to import cheap cars from left-hand driving Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
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.
2. Antigua and Barbuda
11. Cayman Islands
12. Christmas Island (Australia)
13. Cook Islands
16. East Timor
17. Falkland Islands
20. Guernsey (Channel Islands)
22. Hong Kong
26. Isle of Man
29. Jersey (Channel Islands)
32. Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia)
45. New Zealand
47. Norfolk Island (Australia)
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
58. Solomon Islands
59. South Africa
60. Sri Lanka
65. Tokelau (New Zealand)
67. Trinidad and Tobago
68. Turks and Caicos Islands
71. United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland)
72. Virgin Islands (British)
73. Virgin Islands (US)
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.
4. American Samoa
18. Bosnia and Herzegovina
20. British Indian Ocean Territory (Diego García)
22. Burkina Faso
27. Cape Verde
28. Central African Republic
31. China, People's Republic of (Mainland China)
35. Congo (former Republic of Zaire)
36. Costa Rica
39. Czech Republic
42. Dominican Republic
45. El Salvador
46. Equatorial Guinea
50. Faroe Islands (Denmark)
53. French Guiana
54. French Polynesia
56. Gambia, The
57. Gaza Strip
64. Guadeloupe (French West Indies)
77. Ivory Coast
80. Korea, Democratic People's Republic of (North Korea)
81. Korea, Republic of (South Korea)
96. Marshall Islands
97. Martinique (French West Indies)
99. Mayotte (France)
101. Micronesia, Federated States of
102. Midway Islands (USA)
108. Myanmar (formerly Burma)
110. Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, Saba)
111. New Caledonia
115. Northern Mariana Islands
125. Puerto Rico
131. Saint Barthélemy (French West Indies)
132. Saint Martin (French West Indies)
133. Saint Pierre and Miquelon (France)
134. San Marino
135. Sao Tome e Principe
136. Saudi Arabia
139. Sierra Leone
145. Svalbard (Norway)
156. United Arab Emirates
157. United States
163. Wake Island (USA)
164. Wallis and Futuna Islands (France)
165. West Bank
166. Western Sahara
This is a quick table of populations to provide a clue as to just how evenly the sides are represented. 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.
LEFT-DRIVING COUNTRIES RIGHT-DRIVING COUNTRIES
India 952,107,694 China 1,210,004,956 Indonesia 206,611,600 United States 265,562,845 Pakistan 129,275,660 Brazil 162,661,214 Japan 125,449,703 Russia 148,178,487 Bangladesh 123,062,800 Nigeria 103,912,489 Thailand 58,851,357 Mexico 95,772,462 United Kingdom 58,489,975 Germany 83,536,115 South Africa 41,743,459 Philippines 74,480,848 Tanzania 29,058,470 Vietnam 73,976,973 Kenya 28,176,686 Iran 66,094,264 Nepal 22,094,033 Egypt 63,575,107 Uganda 20,158,176 Turkey 62,484,478 Malaysia 19,962,893 France 58,040,988 Sri Lanka 18,553,074 Italy 57,460,274 Australia 18,260,863 Ethiopia 57,171,662 Mozambique 17,877,927 Ukraine 50,864,009 Zimbabwe 11,271,314 Congo (former Zaire) 46,498,539 Malawi 9,452,844 Burma 45,975,625 Zambia 9,159,072 South Korea 45,482,291 Hong Kong 6,305,413 Spain 39,181,114 Papua New Guinea 4,394,537 Poland 38,642,565 Ireland 3,566,833 Colombia 36,813,161 New Zealand 3,547,983 Argentina 34,672,997 Singapore 3,396,924 Sudan 31,065,229 Jamaica 2,595,275 Morocco 29,779,156 Lesotho 1,970,781 Algeria 29,183,032 Bhutan 1,822,625 Canada 28,820,671 Namibia 1,677,243 Peru 24,523,408 Botswana 1,477,630 North Korea 23,904,124 Trinidad and Tobago 1,272,385 Uzbekistan 23,418,381 Mauritius 1,140,256 Afghanistan 22,664,136 Swaziland 998,730 Venezuela 21,983,188 Fiji 782,381 Romania 21,657,162 Cyprus 744,609 Taiwan 21,465,881 Guyana 712,091 Iraq 21,422,292 Macau 496,837 Saudi Arabia 19,409,058 Suriname 436,418 Ghana 17,698,271 Solomon Islands 412,902 Kazakstan 16,916,463 Malta 375,576 Syria 15,608,648 Brunei 299,939 Netherlands 15,568,034 Maldives 270,758 Ivory Coast 14,762,445 Bahamas, The 259,367 Chile 14,333,258 Barbados 257,030 Cameroon 14,261,557 Samoa 189,000 Madagascar 13,670,507 Saint Lucia 157,862 Yemen 13,483,178 Saint Vincent 118,344 Ecuador 11,466,291 US Virgin Islands 97,120 Guatemala 11,277,614 Grenada 94,961 Cuba 10,951,334 Dominica 82,926 Cambodia 10,861,218 Kiribati 80,919 Burkina Faso 10,623,323 Seychelles 77,575 Greece 10,538,594 Antigua and Barbuda 65,647 Belarus 10,415,973 Guernsey 62,920 Angola 10,342,899 Bermuda 62,099 Czech Republic 10,321,120 Saint Kitts and Nevis 41,369 Belgium 10,170,241 Cook Islands 19,561 Hungary 10,002,541 Turks and Caicos Islands 14,302 Serbia 9,979,116 British Virgin Islands 13,195 Portugal 9,865,114 Anguilla 10,424 Mali 9,653,261 Nauru 10,273 Somalia 9,639,151 Tuvalu 10,146 Niger 9,113,001 Falkland Islands 2,758 Senegal 9,092,749 Tunisia 9,019,687 Sweden 8,900,954 Bulgaria 8,612,757 Dominican Republic 8,088,881 Austria 8,023,244 Azerbaijan 7,676,953 Guinea 7,411,981 Switzerland 7,207,060 Bolivia 7,165,257 Chad 6,976,845 Rwanda 6,853,359 Haiti 6,731,539 Burundi 5,943,057 Tajikistan 5,916,373 El Salvador 5,828,987 Benin 5,709,529 Honduras 5,605,193 Paraguay 5,504,146 Libya 5,445,436 Israel 5,421,995 Slovakia 5,374,362 Denmark 5,249,632 Georgia 5,219,810 Finland 5,105,230 Croatia 5,004,112 Laos 4,975,772 Sierra Leone 4,793,121 Togo 4,570,530 Kyrgyzstan 4,529,648 Moldova 4,463,847 Norway 4,383,807 Nicaragua 4,272,352 Jordan 4,212,152 Turkmenistan 4,149,283 Eritrea 3,909,628 Lebanon 3,776,317 Lithuania 3,646,041 Armenia 3,463,574 Costa Rica 3,463,083 Central African 3,274,426 Albania 3,249,136 Uruguay 3,238,952 United Arab Emirates 3,057,337 Bosnia and Herzegov. 2,656,240 Panama 2,655,094 Congo 2,527,841 Mongolia 2,496,617 Latvia 2,468,982 Mauritania 2,336,048 Oman 2,186,548 Liberia 2,109,789 Macedonia 2,104,035 Slovenia 1,951,443 Kuwait 1,950,047 Estonia 1,459,428 West Bank 1,427,741 Gambia 1,204,984 Gabon 1,172,798 Guinea-Bissau 1,151,330 Gaza Strip 923,940 Bahrain 590,042 Comoros 569,237 Qatar 547,761 Cape Verde 449,066 Equatorial Guinea 431,282 Djibouti 427,642 Luxembourg 415,870 Iceland 270,292 Western Sahara 222,631 Belize 219,296 Vanuatu 177,504 Guam 156,974 Sao Tome 144,128 Micronesia 125,377 Andorra 72,766 American Samoa 63,786 Greenland 59,827 Marshall Islands 58,363 Northern Mariana 52,284 Monaco 31,719 Liechtenstein 31,122 Gibraltar 28,765 San Marino 24,521 Wallis and Futuna 14,659
Total 1,940,043,524 Total 3,824,348,286 34% 66%
While all countries that have swapped sides have transferred from left to right, the only three cases recorded of a transfer from right to left were in East Timor in 1975, in Okinawa on 30 July 1978 and in Samoa on 7 September 2009.
A newspaper story on 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 standardized 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.
BACK TO MAIN PAGE