Standards make everything easier. When everyone can agree on a standard way to do things, regardless of how it is done, it can reduce confusion and facilitate progress.
You’d think if there was one thing that would be standardized everywhere, it would be the side of the road everyone drives on. I mean, there are only two options.
Yet, there is no global standard for what side to drive on.
Learn more about why we don’t all drive on the same side of the road on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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You’d think that with only two possibilities, setting a standard for what side of the road to drive on would be really easy. Driving isn’t like electricity, where you can have any number of voltages and plugs.
Yet, the world we live in is divided between countries that drive on the left and countries which drive on the right.
Approximately 70% of humanity lives in a right driving country, and 30% in a left driving country. Of the 195 countries that are members or observers in the United Nations, 141 drive on the right and 54 drive on the left.
The percentage who drive on the left is large enough that there isn’t any incentive for them to change. If it were, say, 10% of the population, there might be more pressure to get with the program and get everyone on the same page. But with 30%, that is enough to not bother to change.
Most of the left hand driving countries in the world fall into one or both of two categories: they are islands or they are former British colonies.
Countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and most of Southern Africa are former British Colonies where left-hand driving was adopted by the British.
So how did this state of affairs come to pass? Why doesn’t everyone drive on the same side of the road?
Back before cars, for the most part, there weren’t any strict rules for what side of the road you should use.
Land transportation usually didn’t go very far. The vast majority of transportation was on foot or on horseback, and the rules were a lot like the rules on a sidewalk today. You might walk on the right or the left depending on what everyone is doing at the moment, and you just don’t want to bump into people.
Going to the right or the left was usually just left to local custom, and there might have been different rules for different roads between towns.
When you research the topic, you’ll find many stories about why right or left-side traditions developed, and most of them might have some truth, but the reality is there is scant hard evidence to prove any of the theories as to why people use one side or the other.
Most of the theories are based on the fact that most people are right-handed. 90% of the population is right-handed, and back in the day, left-handers were often forced to do things right-handed, so de facto, everyone was sort of right-handed.
In ancient Rome, the custom was the ride on the left. The theory is that if you were on a horse, you’d want to have your right hand free and closest to the person passing you, in the event you needed to use your sword. That means you’d be on the left.
Likewise, if you had a wagon, you’d hold the reigns in your left hand so your sword hand was free, and you could also use your right hand for a whip.
Also, right-handed people tend to find it easier to mount a horse from the left.
It is most likely that the British tradition of driving on the left is a legacy from its time as a Roman province. The earliest mentions of the side of the road people should stay on, date from the 17th and 18th centuries, from laws dealing with crossing bridges in London. The laws indicated that people should keep to the left, but the fact that such laws were necessary, and the fact that they only specified bridges, meant that staying to the left wasn’t necessarily universal in England at the time.
So, if the Romans were on the left, and Britain was a Roman province, then why does the rest of Europe drive on the right? Rome had a far larger impact on continental Europe than it did in Britain.
Here it is hard to tell because what side of the road you drove a wagon on wasn’t something that most people bothered to write about.
According to legend, and again there isn’t much proof for this, Napoleon changed the side of the road the French used from left to right because he was left-handed.
This is doubtful because there was some written evidence after Napoleon which indicates that there was no standard.
Author Edward Planta wrote in 1827 in his observations about Paris that “The coachmen have no established rule by which they drive on the right or left of the road, but they cross and jostle one another without ceremony.”
We do know that on the European continent there was a jumble of rules all over as they entered the last part of the 19th century and saw the development of the automobile.
It was at this point that everything started to coalesce. France appears to have been the first to have adopted traveling on the right, and then every other country standardized it over time.
In most countries, it wasn’t so much switching to the right as it was just finally setting a nationwide standard, and then picking the right because their neighbors did.
If you can think of France as a magnet, then all of the other European countries changed the orientation of their magnets so their poles aligned with France.
In China, the Southern provinces around Hong Kong and Macau were on the left before WWII, and the Northern provinces were on the right. The Nationalist government decreed the whole country over to the right, and when the Communists took control, they just kept the convention.
Korea switched from left to right after the war, because they were connected to China, and because left-hand driving was implemented by the Japanese.
Most of Africa had their side of the road set by either the British or the French, with some countries like Ghana, switching to be in line with their neighbors.
By 1950, most nations had standardized a side of the road for their entire country, and use the same side the use today.
All evidence points to the fact that early settlers in the Americans used the right side from the beginning.
Some of this is attributed to the fact that the weapon used by wagon drivers at that time was a gun, not a sword. If you held a musket in your right hand, you would rest it on your left arm, and that is the direction you’d ideally want to point it.
Moreover, there was a great deal of resistance to adopting European customs in the Americas.
As such, early American wagons were designed to be driven on the right.
The first law in the United States mandating which side of the road you have to use was in Pennsylvania in 1792 when they built a turnpike between Lancaster and Philadelphia.
In 1804 New York decreed using the right side of the road for the entire state.
By the time of the Civil War, using the right side of the road was the custom or the law everywhere in the United States.
There really is no intrinsic benefit to using the right or the left side of the road. Ultimately, it’s pretty arbitrary. However, once you pick a side, it is very difficult to switch.
However, it has been done.
In 1967, Sweden switched from driving on the left to driving on the right.
Switching the side of the road an entire country drives on isn’t something that can be phased in gradually. Everyone has to do it all at once.
The day it happened in Sweden was September 3, 1967, a day which was known in Swedish as Högertrafikomläggningen, my apologies to any Swedes who might be listening.
Translated it means “The right-hand traffic diversion”.
The day was planned and announced well in advance. All of Sweden’s neighbors drove on the right and 90% of their cars had the steering wheel on the left as people do in right-hand driving countries.
On September 3, all non-essential traffic in the country was banned. At 4:50 am, everyone on the road was required to pull over, then at 5:00 am, they could resume on the other side of the road.
It was a huge undertaking that required changing most of the road signs, bus stops, and a giant marketing campaign.
Iceland underwent a similar process in 1968.
One thing which I’ve barely touched on is cars. Most cars manufactured for driving on the right, are left-hand drive, in other words, the steering wheel is on the left. Likewise, cars for countries that drive on the left are right-hand drive cars.
There are a few countries where this is often reversed. It isn’t by law, but usually a function of where they get most of their cars.
In the Bahamas for example, as a former British colony, they drive on the left. However, most of their vehicles come from the United States which is left-hand drive. I remember getting a ride in Nassau and when we left the parking lot, the driver had to reach over the passenger seat to pay to get out of the lot.
The US Virgin Islands is similar as they are the only part of the United States to drive on the left, but most of their cars come from the US.
Likewise, in some Pacific countries like Micronesia, I’ve seen the opposite. They drive on the right, but their cars mostly come from Japan and are right-hand drive cars.
What happens when two countries border each other and they drive on different sides? It depends on the border crossing, but it could be as complicated as an overpass which crosses over, or as I’ve seen at some crossings there is just a sign which says, “please drive on the other side now”.
For most people, the side of you road you drive on is something that is so ingrained and instinctual, that they are terrified at renting a car in a country where they drive on the other side.
The first time I did this was in Auckland, New Zealand in 2007. I rented a campervan I had to pick up in the middle of the city. I remember clutching both hands on the steering wheel, turning off the radio, and repeating the mantra over and over “stay on the left, stay on the left”.
Left-hand and right-hand drive cars are not mirrored images of each other. The direction you shift gears is the same, but instead of shifting out, you have to shift in. Likewise, I always found myself turning on the windshield wipers whenever I wanted to use the turn signal.
Today, I’ve driven tens of thousands of kilometers on the left and I consider myself an ambidextrous driver. I don’t think so much about left or right, so much as just orientating myself as the driver with the center lane.
Now when I rent a car where they drive on the left, I can quickly go into left side mode without difficulty.
It is too bad there wasn’t a more formal international standard that developed before the advent of the automobile. Things would have been easy to change before there were road signs and steering wheels. As it currently stands, outside of a few changes, the current system is something we are probably stuck with forever.