If you’re from the nearly 75 percent of countries that have their traffic flow on the right side of the road (referring to the direction rather than a comment on correctness), then you are in for quite a shock in those countries that drive on the left. Countries like England, Japan, and India, just to name a few, require their drivers to drive on the left side of the road. It would seem that in these countries, right isn’t always right. So we couldn’t help but wonder: why are there still countries that drive on the left?
Driving on The Left: A History Lesson
The side of the road on which a country drives is part of centuries-old history. In terms of civilization’s long history, the automobile is a new technology. Travel, on the other hand, is not. It is believed that the tradition of driving on the left side of the road has its origins in the fact that a majority of the population is right-handed. This understanding would imply that the custom of driving on the left is, in fact, older than our modern majority rule of the right.
Archeological evidence shows that ancient Romans drove chariots on the left side of the road. With the guiding reins in their dominant hand (which in most cases would be their right), their left hand was free to hold the whip that commanded the horses onward. There were other practical considerations, too. Should a traveler pass an oncoming chariot, there would be less risk of accidentally injuring the other traveler with your whip should you be to the left. On the other hand, should the same Roman need to fight a passing adversary, positioning himself on the left of his opponent would allow him to attack with his more dominant hand. This tradition appears to have continued through the middle ages. In fact, in 1300 AD, Pope Boniface VIII declared that all voyagers making a pilgrimage to Rome should keep left as they traveled along the road.
The Switch to The Right
Though the rule of the left appears much earlier in history, in truth, for much of the past driving on a particular side of the road was custom rather than law. There generally weren’t many traveling on the same route and the road, if there was one, was typically unpaved. But by the 18th century, travel in large wagons and teams of horses became more common in the United States and these caravans began to influence the travel direction customs. A switch toward traveling on the right side of the road in the US began. To add fuel to the fire, the American Revolution may have further influenced the US sense of direction as adopting different traffic rules could have served as one more symbolic break in its ties with England.
The history of Europe’s transition to the right side of the road is a bit less clear. The logical place to start based on the history books is France. Some look to Revolutionary France, who may have overturned the practice of left side road travel as part of its sweeping social rethink or perhaps as another symbolic break in ties – this time with the Pope (remember Pope Boniface’s 1300 AD decree?). Others look to Napoleon, whose left-handedness may have influenced his rule and his army as much as his short stature. Either way, a consistent change could be observed sweeping across those European countries conquered by Napoleon. The conversion of countries that had driven on the left to the keep-right system had begun.
Invention of the Autombile
With the invention of the automobile, however, uniformity for traffic and travel quickly became essential to public safety. Henry Ford inadvertently had lasting effect on traffic direction in the United States by solidifying the keep-right rule that had begun earlier in the 18th century. By designing the Model T with the driver positioned on the left side of the car, drivers would naturally have to drive on the right side of the road to allow passengers to exit the car onto the curb rather than oncoming traffic. Eventually other countries followed. By the 1960s, most of the world’s countries that now drive on the right hand side had made the switch, with but a few stragglers (we’re looking at you, Iceland).
Countries That Drive on The Left (Still)
There are still approximately fifty countries that drive on the left today. Perhaps the most famous of which are our friends over the pond. Yes, those Brits, Scots, and Irishmen of the United Kingdom have stuck to their left-driving ways. As islands with no shared borders with right-leaning countries, the choice to remain on the left is of little consequence to the UK driver. But the UK is not alone. In fact, most former British colonies and some of the countries that were historically part of the British Empire still drive on the left including India, Australia, and New Zealand.
Oddly enough, there is one country who has made an interesting switch. In 2009, Samoa switched sides to join the minority group of countries that drive on the left. It is the only developed country to have gone from right to left. Why the drastic change so late in the game? The main reason attributed to the change was an effort to end the country’s reliance on expensive, left-hand drive auto imports from the US. In making the switch, Samoa hoped that used and more affordable right-hand drive vehicles from Australia and New Zealand would make their way to the country. Or perhaps they wanted to feel special with their fifteen minutes of worldly fame. We’ll let you decide.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
Despite the passion with which proponents of one side or the other argue their case, there doesn’t appear to be a right answer. And while there is a British Facebook group dedicated to switching over to the right, we’ve been told that there are less than 100 members. Perhaps the US will have to switch to the metric system first, but that’s another article!
Let the debates begin (add your comments below).
For a map of countries that drive on the left, click here.
Need to learn to drive on the left? Check out this guide.