Why Do Some Countries Have Left-Side Driving While Others Have Right-Side Driving?

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Why Do Some Countries Have Left-Side Driving While Others Have Right-Side Driving? About a third of the global population follows the tradition of driving on the left side of the road; these countries are primarily former British colonies. The rest of the world can’t quite focus on why this particular behavior occurs, yet an excellent explanation exists. So, why do some countries have left-side driving while others have right-side driving?

Almost everyone used to drive on the left side of the road because it was safer during times of greater instability, such as in feudal or violent civilizations. Swordsmen favored staying to the left since most people are right-handed, making it more advantageous to have the right arm closer to the opponent and the scabbard further away. Moreover, it lessened the danger of the scabbard (worn on the left) hitting other persons.

The Left

There are hints from the past that left-hand traffic flowed in the ancient world. So why is it on the left? It seems to be a pattern regarding this topic; however, it was primarily a question of convenience in this case.

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It’s common knowledge that most people are “right-handed” or naturally prefer to work with their right hand. To illustrate, below are two ancient groups that relied heavily on horses:

Merchants/Traders

If the carriage driver is right-handed and sitting in the middle, they will find it more comfortable if the carriage leans to the left, so they have more room to maneuver and direct the horses.

Warriors

The scabbard would always be on the right side of a right-handed warrior so that he could draw his sword with his left hand. This practically prevented warriors from mounting their steeds from the right side. Therefore, soldiers and other fighters generally saddle the horse on the left side. Due to the nature of military operations, which require vast numbers of people to move in unison, this strategy would be used by all the soldiers.

The Shift to the Right

Two revolutions in the early 1800s changed the dominant lane of travel. These two revolutions were:

Industrial Revolution

The present production methods and the entire production process owe a great deal to the advent of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Carriages held by merchants and dealers became too tiny to accommodate the product volume. In this way, freight wagons entered the transportation network. Freight wagons were big shipping containers pulled by a horse-drawn carriage (and later, steam engines).

Typically, the driver of a wagon would ride atop one of the horses on the left side of the vehicle, allowing him to direct the movement of the other animals with his right hand. Therefore, it was only logical for wagons to shift to the right side of the road, where the driver would better control the horses.

French Revolution

The French Revolution established an apparent class system. Many nobles had to adopt more common practices to survive the violent revolution. Back in the day, those of higher social standing (such aristocrats and knights) would drive on the left side of the road, while the commoners (like farmers) would stick to the right. During the uprising, the upper class moved to the “safe” (right) side of the road to avoid being targeted by revolutionaries.

New ideas and methods of doing things gradually become the norm. Following a law issued in France in 1794, drivers were required to shift to the right side of the road. The subsequent conquests of Napoleon (the French monarch who came to power at the end of the revolution) throughout Europe helped extend this strategy to countries like Germany, Poland, Switzerland, etc. The states that openly rejected Napoleon’s power remained on the map’s left side. Great Britain and Portugal, for instance, were unequivocally on the opposing side.

What came next

A map of all the countries that were once under British rule.

A map of all the countries that were once under British rule. 

All of Britain’s former colonies adopted the left-side driving system. This has led to the continued use of this system in many nations across East Africa, the South Pacific, and Southeast Asia. What began as an anti-British movement in countries like the United States ultimately became an industrialists’ preference. For instance, it is widely believed that Henry Ford was instrumental in the shift to right-side driving in the United States. His company’s Model-T could only be driven on the right side of the road due to its left-side steering wheel.

Final Note

Why do some countries have left-side driving while others have right-side driving? It’s not as inconsequential as you may believe on the side of the road we drive on. In light of the fact that a major world power like the United States and a growing number of other countries have shifted to right-side driving, the question of which side of the road to use has become a symbol of a country’s desire to be part of a larger group. For instance, Sweden was the only European country to maintain left-hand traffic after WWII.

Much outside pressure was applied because of the country’s trade agreements and desire to fit in with the rest of the continent. With the passage of the Highway Traffic Act in 1967, the country shifted to right-hand traffic.

As noted before, driving was more of a question of convenience in ancient times. Hence there were no hard and fast regulations. In the middle of the 1700s, Britain made its official policy. Some places switched to right-side driving based only on practicality, while others took political and historical factors into account.

If you ever find yourself stopped in traffic, you can take comfort in knowing that someone in the world is driving on the other side of the street and angrily bemoaning the gridlock. Even though we don’t know all drive on the same side of the road, we share more than we believe!

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