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Last updated: 23 January 2024

What if Britain gave up driving on the left?

It is perfectly possible for a country to switch from one side of the road to the other. In the sixties and seventies, Sweden, Iceland, Nigeria and Ghana all swapped sides without much of a problem. But is Britain ever going to drive on the right side of the road? It seems highly improbable, but let’s go with it for now. Let’s assume that the UK (or any other left-driving country, for that matter) is going to flip from left to right.

What are the pros and cons?

Merits of making the switch

  • Driving on the right would bring left-driving countries into line with most of the rest of the world, which would eliminate a lot of traffic confusion and dangerous situations when going abroad.
  • Driving on the right would make trips to right-driving countries easier, when taking or hiring a car.
  • Vehicles with steering wheels on the left are often cheaper, because they are mass-produced. Right-hand-drive cars are produced in smaller numbers and require additional engineering time, so they are bound to be more expensive. That’s the reason why in mainland Europe cars are a fair bit cheaper than in the UK or Ireland.

Demerits of making the switch

  • Costs (changing road markings and signs, rebuilding some motorway junctions, replacing buses, etc.) In 1969, the financial burden of making the switch was calculated by the British government to be £264 million, about £3.4 billion today (approximately €4 billion or U$5.6 billion). But that would now be seen as a ridiculously conservative estimate. Since that time, the road network and the level of sophistication of the network and its controlling infrastructure has grown enormously. A couple of years ago, the UK’s Automobile Association calculated that the cost of simply changing Britain’s road signs from miles to kilometres would be £750 million.
  • Initially all cars would still have the steering wheel on the right, so drivers would find themselves further away from the centre of the road.
  • Immediately after the switch, there could be a safety problem: driving habits are well-entrenched and it might take some time to get used to the new arrangements. This could be particularly true for elderly road users who are less able to adapt to changed conditions.
  • All buses would have to be rebuilt or else they would have to drop off passengers in the middle of the road.

How would it work?

  • Road markings and roadside signs would have to be switched to the other side of the road, but ready in advance of the day of change. They would have to remain covered until the day of the change.
  • One-way streets would have to be reconfigured.
  • Traffic lights with filters would have to changed.
  • About one in 10 motorway junctions would need to be dug up and rebuilt, since they are asymmetric or incomplete.
  • Slip roads that were deceleration lanes would suddenly be used for accelerating, so their lengths would need to be extended and vice versa.
  • The switch would have to be made at night and all private traffic would have to be banned for several hours in order to allow workers to uncover the new road signs.
  • Immediately after the change, the speed limit in urban areas would have to be lowered for a couple of weeks as a safety precaution.
  • For some (mostly elderly) motorists a retraining programme would be needed to familiarize them with anti-clockwise roundabouts, left-hand turns which cut across oncoming traffic, etc.