Which side of the road to drive on?

Why do we drive on the right in most coun­tries but not in oth­ers?

Vocable (All English) - - Édito | Sommaire -

Is traf­fic mov­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion in the UK an­other ex­am­ple of Bri­tish ec­cen­tric­ity? Not nec­es­sar­ily, as driv­ing on the left in the UK and a mi­nor­ity of other coun­tries, and on the right in the rest of the world, is not nec­es­sar­ily by ac­ci­dent. Here is how it came about…


the lead-up toHö ger tr afikom­läggn in­gen, or Day H, Swe­den’ s traf­fic plan­ners were hard at work. They spent weeks draw­ing up new in­ter­sec­tions and re­vis­ing oneway sys­tems; work­ers laboured to add new doors to the other side of thou­sands of buses. The night be­fore, road mark­ings were hastily re­painted, bus stops moved and some 360,000 street signs re­jigged. Then, fol­low­ing a na­tional count­down on the ra­dio, at 5am on September 3rd, 1967, Swedish mo­torists switched from the left to the right-hand side of the road. De­spite pub­lic op­po­si­tion, the switch made sense. Most Swedes owned cars with steer­ing wheels on the left, and driv­ers po­si­tioned on the out­side of the road caused lots of ac­ci­dents when over­tak­ing. By switch­ing to the right, Swe­den be­came the last coun­try in con­ti­nen­tal Europe to con­form to a rule now fol­lowed by al­most three-quar­ters of coun­tries. How do coun­tries de­cide which side of the road to drive on?


2. Driv­ing on the right was not al­ways the norm. Through­out the Mid­dle Ages, traf­fic tended to stick to the left (though this was more a gen­eral rule-of-thumb than en­forced reg­u­la­tion). Even be­fore that, Ro­man sol­diers marched on the left-hand side. His­to­ri­ans are not en­tirely sure why. Many think this was be­cause it suited swords­men, the ma­jor­ity of whom were right-handed. Be­ing on the left, the think­ing goes, meant that when they drew their weapons, their sword-wield­ing arm would be in the mid­dle of the road and could there­fore best strike on­com­ing foes. 3. Things started to change in parts of North Amer­ica in the late 18th cen­tury. One the­ory puts this down to more big wag­ons trundling up and down roads. These wag­ons, pulled by mul­ti­ple pairs of horses, had no seats. The driver sat on the back left horse so that his whip could reach ev­ery an­i­mal and, his­to­ri­ans spec­u­late, con­se­quently stayed to the right to see on­com­ing traf­fic clearly.


4. At around the same time, trav­el­ling on the right caught on in revo­lu­tion­ary France, where the side of road peo­ple trav­elled on car­ried class con­no­ta­tions. The poor gen­er­ally stuck to the right and aris­to­crats to the left. Those who had re­tained pos­ses­sion of their heads switched to the right to avoid stick­ing out. In 1794 Robe­spierre made it of­fi­cial with an or­der that all traf­fic in Paris stick to the right. Later, as Napoleon, an en-

thu­si­as­tic rule-maker, swept through Europe, he switched the coun­tries he con­quered to the right-hand side. Colo­nial pow­ers acted sim­i­larly, sub­ject­ing their do­mains to their traf­fic rules.


5. The ten­dency to­wards the right was ce­mented in the 1920s with the ad­vent of mo­tor cars and ac­com­pa­ny­ing stan­dard­i­s­a­tion. Coun­tries with mixed sys­tems, such as Canada, set­tled on the right be­cause their neigh­bours were al­ready on that side. The tilt to the right ac­cel­er­ated with de­coloni­sa­tion in the 1960s. Once a big coun­try switched, its neigh­bours gen­er­ally fol­lowed suit. Af­ter Nige­ria changed to drive on the right in 1972, for in­stance, the pres­sure grew on Ghana, the last re­main­ing coun­try in west Africa still stick­ing to the left. It switched two years later.

6. Is­lands such as Bri­tain and Ja­pan, on the other hand, held out and stayed left. Most of the 58 coun­tries on the left side of the road are for­mer Bri­tish colonies or their neigh­bours. Might any of them be lured to the right? It is un­likely, con­sid­er­ing the costs that would be in­volved com­pared with last cen­tury, when traf­fic was lighter. The last coun­try to switch was Samoa, in 2009, which went the other way, swap­ping right for left to match rel­a­tively nearby Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

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