Out on the open road, you’re free as a bird, sailing along with the wind in your hair. That freedom has limits, though, especially when another motorist comes toward you from the opposite direction. At that point you will both want it very clearly understood who is going to be on what side of the road. Of course, that’s all taken care of, given the orderly painted lanes and our laws and customs. Everybody knows you stay on the right, right? Sure, if you’re in the US, but if you’re cruising the countryside in Britain’s Cotswolds, you’d better be on the left. Why is that? Who decided what side we drive on? It’s a long, complicated, and often very individual story for countries around the world.
Modern roads are plainly striped for safety and clarity, but the roads of old were just paths in the dirt, and people passing by one another at horse speeds developed customs regarding who went where as they met. One theory has it that a habit of road-passing handedness developed as a result of armament and effective self-defense. Given that most people are right-handed, a sword is most likely to hang in a scabbard on one’s left side, for easy unsheathing. In concert with that, a right-handed swordsman would more easily mount a horse on the horse’s left side, with that floppy scabbard out of the way on the rider’s left side. Then, once mounted, a right-handed rider could engage an oncoming sword-wielder sword-to-sword if the two riders passed to each other’s right. That is, if each travelled on the left side of the road. Further, dismounting on the left while in the left lane keeps the rider from stepping out into wagons or whatever traffic might be going by. Takes a bit of visualization, but you can see how one convenience might have led to all the other results, which then became a custom. More concretely, archaeology offers some early evidence for left travel. An ancient Roman road to a stone quarry in Swindon, England, shows deeper tracks worn into the paving stones on the outbound, laden side, which was on the left as the wagons departed. So Roman rules may have set the habit in England. It is also said that Greek and Egyptian troops marching in the ancient world stayed to the left when they passed each other. Left driving in Britain looks to have old roots.
Britain may be the nation most well-known for being left-siders, but a bit more than a third of the world’s people have the same arrangement. Many of the countries so doing were colonized by Britain long ago, and adopted their system. India, Australia, New Zealand, Myanmar (colonized when it was Burma) and a number of countries in southern Africa are among these. Somehow, though, despite Britain’s early influence and long reach, 65 percent of the world’s traffic does so on the right. One story that accounts for this involves the evolution of larger vehicles of transport. In both early America and France, the development of larger wagons with multiple-horse teams led to drivers sitting on the left-rear horse. These wagons apparently did not feature on-wagon seating. From his position at the left rear, a driver’s right hand could best wield a whip on the rest of the team. Also, from there a driver was better able to judge passing distance from oncoming wagons if he kept his to the right.
This tradition that grew out of late 18th century America and France led to traffic movement hewing to the right side of the roads in many places, lest they tangle with a big vehicle. Part of the impetus in the nascent United States was an aversion to all things British, so right-hand movement was in a sense more patriotic. And those sentiments were seconded by right-habituated French immigrants. For the French themselves, the tradition became law in Paris in 1794, and then Emporer Napoleon carried the right-handedness to Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Poland and parts of Spain and Italy. In places where his military campaigns were unsuccessful—Britain, Austria-Hungary, Portugal—the drivers stayed on the left. Both systems found it safer and more convenient to place the driver’s seat closest to the center line, so American cars have the steering wheel on the left, and British cars on the right.
The influence of conquering countries brought left- or right-hand traffic to various countries worldwide, and in the 1800s, with industry, commerce, and travel growing in many places, laws regarding road movement solidified behavior. Not all decisions on handedness resulted from coercion. The Japanese were not forced to choose left-hand driving, but they had help from the British in setting up their early railroad systems, and they adopted the left-side tradition of traffic flow that came with the rail layout. The evolution of traffic movement standards is complex, and doesn’t always follow a single pattern. The Netherlands enforced left-side driving on their colonies in the East Indies, and though Napoleon forced the Netherlands to switch to the right, their island possessions did not follow suit, and today Indonesia maintains its original left-side driving. England ruled Egypt for a while, but Napoleon’s rule at an earlier time established a right-side habit that persevered. Portugal, a left-side nation, took over the Indian enclave of Goa, in the early 1500s. When Portuguese drivers went to the right in 1928, Brazil followed suit, but Goa kept its left-side driving because the huge surroundings of India made it more practical. India’s reclaiming of Goa in 1961 probably would have had them back on the left in any case. Canada has a convoluted history reflective of its dual British/French origins. While most of the country observed the left side, areas of French influence took to the right. This persisted until after World War II, but slowly the various provinces changed to right-hand driving, probably mostly influenced by their huge right-handed neighbor to the south.
In Europe, almost all countries that were left-side moved over, some influenced by the heavy hand of Germany’s occupation, and others to be in concert with their neighbors. The longer a country waited to change, the more infrastructure had to be reworked. Sweden held off longer than all the rest on the continent, but finally flipped its directions of travel in 1967. Besides the U.K., the only European nations to keep to the left are the islands of Ireland, Malta, and Cyprus. Today, any developed country would be hard-pressed to justify the switchover. Rebuilding freeway off- and on-ramps, for example, would be prohibitively expensive, so our mixed bag of lefties and righties are probably going to remain a challenge to travellers heading into lands opposite their own standards. For Americans, even those just walking, that means looking right when crossing streets in London. More than a few have paid the price for their automatic habit of looking left—they never saw that oncoming car on the right. Beware your cultural blinders when you wander the world.
Take the ultimate challenge—go drive on the left in a major city! National Geographic’s streetmap of London will help you get around even after you abandon the car and climb on a double-decker bus. Available from Maps.com.
caption: Left- and right-handed driving by country. The blue and turquoise left-handers are largely former British colonies. Red and orange stay to the right.
source: Wikimedia Commons: TesterABV (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: Traffic pattern look funny to you? Must be an American. These Brits are holding onto a long tradition of left-side driving. Hardly matters here—nobody’s moving much.
source: Geograph: Ben Gamble (CC by SA 2.0 Generic)
caption: Thanks to British influence, traffic in Mumbai, and the rest of India “flows” on the left, when it can.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Lakun.patra (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: Heading toward LA or anywhere else in the USA, traffic hews to the right.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Curimedia (CC by 2.0 Generic)
caption: Staying to a side you’re not familiar with is one thing. Making a cross-traffic turn is a whole other level of brain-twisting thought.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Jusjih, modified by Parutakupiu (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)
caption: Driving in Japan or the UK requires more than remembering what side of the road to stay on.
source: Pxhere: Unknown (Public domain)