Which side of the road to drive on?
Why do we drive on the right in most countries but not in others?
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?
A RECENT NORM
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.