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Driving on the wrong side


Some years ago, on a plane trip to London, England, this writer encountered a couple from the USA who were beginning a tour of the British Isles. They planned to pick up a rental car at the airport and set out that very morning after an overnight flight. The fact that, after a virtually sleepless night, they'd be driving a strange car in a strange country on the "wrong" side of the road didn't seem to bother them.

As I watched them depart from the rental area (I, too, was renting a car, but I'd made this transition many times before and had lived in London), I wondered how they'd manage. All right, I suspect, but they would probably have "incidents" which might be scary. And very likely these scary incidents would occur after they'd been in England for a week or more.

In the first few days of driving on the "opposite" side one tends to maintain a high state of alertness; but then, after relaxing, old habits start to return. Eyes habituated to checking certain directions at intersections and traffic merge points may revert to accustomed patterns unless a conscious effort is made. Pavement on London streets often has painted "Look Right" signs to warn unwary continental and overseas tourists that traffic will be coming at them from the right rather than the left as they step off the sidewalk. There are no similar warnings for automobile drivers.

Most likely, the couple survived their trip without any serious problem, although they may have been exposed to more risk than they realized. Traffic is, after all, rather flexible, and mistakes on their part could have been covered up by local drivers adjusting. And one of the things they would have had in their favor is that they were driving a car designed for driving on the left.

Every day, truckers hauling goods between the United Kingdom and continental Europe, where every country drives on the right, have to make the same transition. Since the driver normally sits on the side of the vehicle nearest to the center of the roadway, this can be a useful orientation for the driver who is feeling temporarily confused. Truckers don't have this advantage because they remain on the side where the steering wheel is, regardless of the country.

It's very revealing about the task of driving an automobile that a major change such as from left side to right side driving doesn't immediately increase the risk of a crash. When Sweden made a national changeover from left to right in 1967, the crash rate dropped dramatically and took several months to return to normal levels. This demonstrates the value of attentiveness in driving but, unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to maintain a high level of attentiveness all the time.

One joker suggested that Sweden make the transition in stages, with the truckers going first (after all they're professionals!), but it was all planned like a military operation and most of it was completed within 24 hours. A 30-page booklet was distributed to every household in the country in advance of the change. All private motor traffic was prohibited four hours before and one hour after the conversion. The army participated in rearranging traffic signs. Speed limits were reduced following the transition and then gradually returned to normal.

Who drives on the left?

More than 50 countries around the world drive on the left side of the road. The major countries, ranked by population, are India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Japan, Thailand, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Nepal. In Europe, Cyrpus, Ireland and Malta are the other countries that drive on the left.

Why some countries drive on the left

The reasons for the right-left division in driving traditions around the world offer some fascinating insights into the history of traffic and politics.

By all accounts, the rules for automobiles had their origins in customs that built up around horses and carriages centuries ago. Interestingly, those customs seem to favor driving on the left rather than on the right, as most countries do today.

In those days of violence and mistrust, riders encountering one another on narrow roads tended to keep to their left. This meant that their sword arms (most people being right-handed) would be on the side next to the oncoming rider. There are other theories about horse drawn carts, stagecoaches, and wagons that complicate the issue somewhat but make the same point. Wagon drivers, for example, being mostly right handed, would find it practical to sit on the right, keeping their whips clear of their vehicles and passengers, and left-side driving gave them a clearer view of clearance between themselves and oncoming traffic on narrow roads.

However, there are other theories that favor right-side driving. Brian Lucas, in his discourse on the topic on the travel-library.com web site, points out that walkers have a tendency to keep to the right when encountering oncoming walkers, and walkers leading a horse or cart tend to keep right also. This allows them to control the horse with their right hand, while at the same time giving them a good position to see clearance with oncoming traffic. "It also facilitates conversations between people meeting, and it is more comfortable for the person walking to be in the center of the road than to be at the edge," he points out.

Different countries

The reasons why individual countries might adopt different traditions adds an extra layer of complexity. For example, Lucas writes, "In some countries, teams of horses pulling a wagon were driven by a person riding one of the horses in the team. This is called postillion control. A right-handed rider mounts from the left and controls the team with a whip held in the right hand, and therefore must mount the left-rear horse of the team. From this position, the driver has the best view of the distance between his vehicle and oncoming traffic by keeping to the right."

In France, cart-drivers and postillion riders dominated traffic, and this supported the trend towards driving on the right.

Political considerations also played a major role. It is believed that the French tradition of driving on the right may have had its origins in the aftermath of the French revolution. Nobility, for the reasons mentioned above, tended to drive on the left. More humble members of the populace tended to walk on the right, facing the oncoming traffic, much as pedestrians do today with automobiles. After the revolution, the theory goes, it wasn't a good idea for nobility to be identifiable, and they began walking on the right with the rest of the population in order to blend in.

One historian said he could find no evidence that driving on the left had ever been widespread in France. Napoleon likely played a major role in making the rest of Europe right side driving by imposing French rules on the countries he conquered.

Today, most of the countries that adhere to left side driving are those that came under the influence of British rule during the 19th Century. It would seem likely then that the USA, having been once a British colony, would have retained the driving on the left rule. However, in his book The Rule of the Road: An International Guide to History and Practice (now out of print), author Peter Kincaid states that he could find no evidence that left side driving was ever widespread in the USA. He attributes this to the influence of European settlers used to driving on the right, and also the fact that vehicles such as carts and the postillion-controlled Conestoga Wagons were popular in the colony and favored right-side driving. However, there may have been some parts of the country that did adhere to left side rules for a time.

In Canada, the evidence is that Ontario and Quebec, which started out under French influence, always had right side driving. Other areas such as British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces, remained staunchly English in their influence and drove on the left. They switched to the right in the 1920s to conform with the rest of Canada and the USA.

For more fascinating insights into left and right side driving visit this Traffic law site.End of Article

Further comments to this article have been disabled.


All Comments (34)

Showing 1 - 34 comments

Love,

At last! Somonee who understands! Thanks for posting!

MM,

Did anyone ever answer the question about learning to drive on the lewft in advance of a trip to Australia?

Brad Outland,

in the 1906 film on 60 minutes called "A Trip Down Market Street" the steering wheel and driver were on the right side of the car, but the vehicles did also stay to the right. this was early in car history and there were many horse drawn buggies on the street, so maybe everyone was used to driving horse carriages on right to use whip?

Philip Baker,

We traveling to Australia for three weeks later this year. Is there any place in the US where we can practice driving a right hand car on the left?

Indian way,

British ruler have copied Indian road system. British is following Indian style driving.

Hindu Temple pradarshanam has always been in clockwise direction over 1000 years. It is considered is auspicious to move in "apradarshanam" way - rotating round the gods in anti-clockwise direction. People who are "berieved condition" (loved one's death) only do it.

When British rulers came they adopted Hindu temple customer in their driving as it was more lucky for them.

Also human being are mostly right handed. It is natural the steering wheel is on right. But America think in opposite direction. That is why everything from electrical switches, to road style to legal system happens upside down in America. May be most people in America eat in left hand. Other country's have copied American style of driving.

Unameit,

i think we (everyone, everywhere) should sit on the left, to accommodate the right-handed (majority)(shifting gears and reaching around the cab) and drive on the left to be farthest from head-on impact

Mike,

I couldn't disagree more.

It's much more pleasant to shift gears with your right hand.
When your looking through the rear window, it's more natural to bend on your right side.
If you wanna drink juice, your right hand is free when you're on a freeway.

Driving on the right side is for right handed people, and British are just stubborn and they mess with their brains while driving on the wrong side of the road.

dspages.com.au,

In Australia a left driver country it would make sense to be right since we are part of Asia. You can see all the articles for driving schools and driving related articles on www.drivingschoolpages.com.au

Ryan Lambert,

Its a strange paradox that we drive on opposite sides of the road across the world.
I recently hired a car on holiday in the Canary Islands, and being a British driver for many many years, found driving on the right a very strange experience.
For me, and i suspect all Brits, it makes no sense to drive on the right, since left is first and right is second, in terms of saying the orientations....i.e. " my Left and Right", also, it has been proved that the right side of the brain, and eyes is the most dominant, so being on the right of the car and keeping left makes biological sense in terms of hazard awareness.
This so called "fact" may well be a pile of crap really, as if you are accustomed to driving on the right, your driving brain will adapt to this, as it certainly does for the three quarters of the world that do actually drive on the right, and the guys that do, including the USA, share my sentiment about the strangeness of driving on the opposite side, in other words, Americans think it strange to drive left, as I do on the right.

However, all this said, I still found it strange doing so on holiday.
Entering motorways from the right and exiting on the right was very weired indeed, as was overtaking on the left (illegal in Britain)and passing parked cars that were on my right i had to leave a bigger gap than i normally would for fear of hitting them due to my "wrong" orientation of being on the left side of the car.
Roundabouts were strange, with traffic coming to my left instead of right, nearly caused me to run into another car when i instinctively looked right insted of left on the roundabout approach (cue my girlfriends heart attack)

All this said, i dont think I would find it a problem adjusting in future now i have experienced it, however, it must be said that i would never lose my instinct to keep left, so a hightened sense of awareness will always be required for me whenever i am in countries that keep right.

Dank,

AS someone who regularly visits countries which drive on the left I don't think the problems of changing are insurmountable.

However, the changeover task would be massive, and people driving left-drive vehicles in a right-drive environment would have a tough time of it. It's a lot easier to change side when the machine you are driving has the controls on the proper side.

LIke to know more about making vehicles with both LHD and RHD facilities installed in advance of the changeover so each vehicle could be changed practically overnight.

Brian,

I agree with Geoff that there would be huge benefits to all countries driving on the right.And yes, it should be a global effort.

This would be a good time to do it, since it would create much-needed employment in those countries that need to change.

GeoffChedd,

Most people would agree that the world would be a safer, (better?) place if everyone drove on the same side of the road.

Two thirds of the world's population drives on the right.

Many studies have shown that there is no significant advantage to left or right.

It follows that the global standard should be DRIVE RIGHT.

This is a global issue. Costs of conversion should be shared by all nations.

Technology is improving and vehicles can be made both LHD and RHD. (Left hand and right hand drive) Pedals can be linked "by-wire" and stearing wheels can be moved from right to left when changing from "keep right" to "keep left" roads.

Given a sufficient time (say 20 years) to prepare for a change, vehicle change costs would be reduced. Road changes and signage changes would be expensive, but in the long term (the next several hundred years) would save costs and lives.

Standardising the world's roads would be a great investment for future generations.

Christopher Davison,

Hi, I hope people will sit in their cars at the wheel and consider the following:

Driving on the left is safer for right handed people here is why:

When changing gear in a UK car with the steering wheel on the right , this is of course correct in the UK etc for driving on the left--------your left hand changes gear and your right hand stays on the steering wheel, (this is safer for right handed people.)

Right handed people who are also "right eyed" have the traffic coming toward them on their right in left hand driving areas , which is the way "right eyed" people are able to react better

When I reverse out I hold the steering wheel with my right hand and look over my left shoulder to the rear window. In a USA car you must hold the steering wheel with your left hand and look over your right shoulder to look out of the rear window.. So you must reverse with your left hand on the steering wheel.. Or stick your head out of the window if you want to use your right hand on the steering wheel. Or use side mirrors---Dangerous for the 82% right handed majority.

Mounting a bike in the UK is done from the sidewalk by right handed people who find it easier to put their right leg over the bike. , Much safer and this must have saved many lives.

Terry Robinson,

I imported a British car to Germany and had a German car in Britain. On one specific day I drove both left and right handed cars in Germany and the UK with no bother.

Of course, we ambidextrous people are taking over the world.

Terry

Joe Blow,

I wished all nations drove on the same side of the road. Yes, it can be uneasy for tourists, truckies, etc.

Most people are right-handed, and controlling a steering wheel with your right hand and gears with your left hand is much easier than the other way around.

I've driven in numerous nations, and I prefer driving on the left hand side of the road.

Gilberto,

I spent 20 years driving on the right, now I have 5 years driving on the left, and I must say, driving on the left is much easier and I fell more confident. Good luck.

Duckkeun Yoon,

I'm from South Korea and I'm living in Australia. But, Australian driving direction makes me confused.

But, my Japanese friends has no problem. So, I alway look at the both side when I cross the street.

I don't know which one better is.

But, in my opinion, most of people are right-handed. So, driving on the right on the road is better than the other one.

Terry, Cyprus,

To Michael, Maryland. None of the countries in Europe that drive on the left have land borders with other countries so there would appear to be no sound reason for switching. And where exactly are these "many needless accidents", the accident rate in the UK is among the lowest in the world. I suggest you research your material before making unsound statements.

Scott,

When in Sweden a barman who's father was English said he did not fancy driving on the wrong side of the road when visiting the UK. I said the right side. No he said we drive on the right you drive on the left. I told him the left was the right side to be on.
Remember, it was others that changed not Britain so they were being the ackward ones. Figure if I emmigrate I will go to either Australia or NZ for this reason.

Vee, Fiji,

To Michael, Maryland 30/5/08 How would switching sides 'prevent many needless accidents'? What evidence do you have? Do you really expect over 50 countries to switch over for no good reason? For the EU to finance this is a waste of money. Think it through M.

E-dawg,

You Missed Australia on the left hand driving countries list.

Michael, Maryland,

It would prevent many needless trafic accidents if the U.K., Ireland, Cyprus and Malta were to switch to driving on the right-hand side of the road. If Sweden could do it successfully in 1967, I'm sure these countries too could manage it. The EU would probably be prepared to finance the change or at least the major part of it because it would benefit all the citizens of the Union.

ponteney,

I love to drive on the left handside of the road and I think that France should come to it.Why England should be the only country in Europe to drive on "the wrong side of the road"
merky buccups for reading me
I'd rather be a brit !

Cesar,

When I began the english classes here in Brazil, I found a funny story from a situation where a driver was discussing with a traffic guard in England, because he was driving at the "Right" side of the road.

The story begins as follows:

Guard: Stop there!!, why are driving at the right side of the road?
Driver: Are you asking me to drive at the wrong side?
G: No!, You are at the wrong side!
D: But you just said I was at the right side..................
????????
Well, unfortunately I could not find full text anymore.
If somebody knows it, please let me know.

Cesar.fusinato@terra.com.br

Ian,

Some countries other have changed to driving on the right too.

Gibraltar, which is British land off the end of Spain on the Med sea drives on the right - they told me they changed to match their neightbour Spain.

Before WW2 the Czech Republic used to drive on the left, and I think Nigeria can be added to the list as it used to drive on the left.

I learnt to drive in England, and have driven both left and right hand drive cars on both sides of the road. At first I found it a little odd sitting on the other side of the car, but nowadays it falls into place like riding a (pedal) bike. And the road layout and marking help to remind on which side to drive. A bigger problem is local driving culture, for example speed limits are lower in the USA, road direction signs tend to work on a different basis and of course passing red lights for any reason is a big no no in the UK.

Dan Keegan,

Thanks Antole, and Vanessa. I've added Japan to the list and also Cyprus and Malta in Europe

Antole,

Japan (population 125 million) is missing from the list of major countries that drive on the left. Malta is also a European country that drives on the left!

Vanessa, Ireland,

You mention that Ireland and the UK are the only European countries to drive on the left. Cyprus actually drive on the left side of the road as well, you may want to change that in your blog above.

Chris,

here's another good one
http://carcaptain.com/ in the London area

DK,

Valmari, try BSM, the British School of Motoring

Valmari,

I need to find a school to learn how to drive in England. I live in the United States of America.

sarah khan,

WHY WE ARE MAKING SO MANY LAWS IF WE ARE NOT FOLLOWING THEM.WHY PEOPLE ARE USING WRONG ROUTES?

shahid zaman,

ih im male age 33 im from pakistan i have united arab emirates driving licence no 278872 issue date 17/06/1992 expiry date 16/06/2009 wehicle permitted 3/5/6* this tim im in pakistan ok thinks ?

hared shine,

why do you have a website and what use is it to what people are looking for. i am looking for what side of the rode they drive on and why.


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