Why some countries drive on the left and others right?
Left-hand traffic (LHT) and right-hand traffic (RHT) are the practice, in bidirectional traffic, of keeping to the left side or to the right side of the road, respectively. A fundamental element to traffic flow, it is sometimes referred to as the rule of the road.RHT is used in 163 countries and territories, with the remaining 78 countries and territories using LHT. Countries that use LHT account for about a sixth of the world’s area with about 35% of its population and a quarter of its roads.In 1919, 104 of the world’s territories were LHT and an equal number were RHT. From 1919 to 1986, 34 of the LHT territories switched to RHT.
Ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Roman troops kept to the left when marching.In 1998, archaeologists found a well-preserved double track leading to a Roman quarry near Swindon, in southern England. The grooves in the road on the left side (viewed facing down the track away from the quarry) were much deeper than those on the right side, suggesting LHT, at least at this location, since carts would exit the quarry heavily loaded, and enter it empty.
The first reference in English law to an order for LHT was in 1756, with regard to London Bridge.
Some historians, such as C. Northcote Parkinson, believed that ancient travellers on horseback or on foot generally kept to the left, since most people were right-handed. If two men riding on horseback were to start a fight, each would edge toward the left.In the year 1300, Pope Boniface VIII directed pilgrims to keep left.
In the late 1700s, traffic in the United States was RHT based on teamsters’ use of large freight wagons pulled by several pairs of horses. The wagons had no driver’s seat, so the (typically right-handed) postilion held his whip in his right hand and thus sat on the left rear horse. Seated on the left, the driver preferred that other wagons pass him on the left so that he could be sure to keep clear of the wheels of oncoming wagons.
In France, traditionally foot traffic had kept right, while carriage traffic kept left. Following the French Revolution, all traffic kept right.Following the Napoleonic Wars, the French imposed RHT on parts of Europe. During the colonial period, RHT was introduced by the French in New France, French West Africa, the Maghreb, French Indochina, the West Indies, French Guiana and the Réunion, among others.
Meanwhile, LHT was introduced by the British in parts of Canada (Atlantic Canada and British Columbia), Australia, New Zealand, the East Africa Protectorate (now Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), British India, Rhodesia and the Cape Colony (now Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa), British Malaya (now Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore), British Guiana, and British Hong Kong. LHT was also introduced by the Portuguese Empire in Portuguese Macau, Colonial Brazil, Portuguese Timor, Portuguese Mozambique, and Portuguese Angola.
The first keep-right law for driving in the United States was passed in 1792 and applied to the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike. New York formalized RHT in 1804, New Jersey in 1813 and Massachusetts in 1821.
In the early 1900s some countries including Canada, Spain, and Brazil had different rules in different parts of the country. During the 1900s many countries standardised within their jurisdictions, and changed from LHT to RHT, mostly to conform with regional custom. Currently nearly all countries use one side or the other throughout their entire territory. Most exceptions are due to historical considerations and/or involve islands with no road connection to the main part of a country. China is RHT except the Special Administrative Regionsof Hong Kong and Macau. The Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge is RHT even though both Hong Kong and Macau are LHT. The United States is RHT except the United States Virgin Islands. The United Kingdom is LHT, but its overseas territories of Gibraltar and British Indian Ocean Territory are RHT.
In Russia, in 1709, the Danish envoy under Tsar Peter the Great noted the widespread custom for traffic in Russia to pass on the right, but it was only in 1752 that Empress Elizabeth (Elizaveta Petrovna) officially issued an edict for traffic to keep to the right. In addition, the French Revolution of 1789 gave a huge impetus to right-hand travel in Europe. The fact is, before the Revolution, the aristocracy travelled on the left of the road, forcing the peasantry over to the right, but after the storming of the Bastille and the subsequent events, aristocrats preferred to keep a low profile and joined the peasants on the right. An official keep-right rule was introduced in Paris in 1794, more or less parallel to Denmark, where driving on the right had been made compulsory in 1793.
Later, Napoleon’s conquests spread the new rightism to the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), Switzerland, Germany, Poland and many parts of Spain and Italy. The states that had resisted Napoleon kept left – Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Portugal. This European division, between the left- and right-hand nations would remain fixed for more than 100 years, until after the First World War.
Although left-driving Sweden ceded Finland to right-driving Russia after the Finnish War (1808-1809), Swedish law – including traffic regulations – remained valid in Finland for another 50 years. It wasn’t until 1858 that an Imperial Russian decree made Finland swap sides.
The trend among nations over the years has been toward driving on the right, but Britain has done its best to stave off global homogenisation. With the expansion of travel and road building in the 1800s, traffic regulations were made in every country. Left-hand driving was made mandatory in Britain in 1835. Countries which were part of the British Empire followed suit. This is why to this very day, India, Australasia and the former British colonies in Africa go left. An exception to the rule, however, is Egypt, which had been conquered by Napoleon before becoming a British dependency.
Japan was never part of the British Empire, but its traffic also goes to the left. Although the origin of this habit goes back to the Edo period (1603-1868), it wasn’t until 1872 that this unwritten rule became more or less official. That was the year when Japan’s first railway was introduced, built with technical aid from the British. Gradually, a massive network of railways and tram tracks was built, and of course all trains and trams drove on the left-hand side. Still, it took another half century till in 1924 left-side driving was clearly written in a law.
In one study, researchers concluded that left-hand traffic may be safer for elderly since humans are more commonly right-eye dominant than left-eye Comparing accident statistics between countries operating either LHT or RHT, Leeming concluded that LHT is However, Watson has criticised the small sample size and dismisses the notion.
Interesting Facts about Left- and Right-Hand Driving
- Bolivia generally requires that traffic drive on the right-hand side except for on one road known as “El Camino de la Muerte” (The Road of Death).
- Rwanda and Burundi are the only East African Community countries still driving on the right-hand side.
- Most of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean have LHD private cars, despite the regulation stating that driving is on the left-hand side. This has particularly caused many accidents in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- On the mainland Americas, Guyana and Suriname are the only two remaining countries that drive on the left-hand side.
- Kyrgyzstan law requires that traffic drive on the right-hand side yet there is a strong market for RHD cars imported from Japan.
- In some African countries, for example Kenya, left hand vehicles are not allowed unless they are for diplomats who come from left-hand driving countries and would like to bring their vehicles with them. However, special vehicles like those used in mining and construction are allowed.