View Full Version : Why do English drive on the left, most others on the right?

05 May 04,, 04:53
Why people in other countries drive on the wrong side of the road!

Why do we drive on the left?

Roman times

In Roman times everyone in Europe travelled on the left because this was the way the Romans liked it.

Why did the Romans travel on the left?

No-one knows, but there is a good theory. It was quite dangerous to walk about in the Roman world so people carried weapons. A person walking towards you on the road could be a friend or an attacker. Most people are right-handed so they would normally prefer to pass to the left of anyone walking towards them because they could quickly defend themselves using a weapon carried in their right hand.

The French Revolution

Before the French Revolution everyone in France (and the rest of Europe) continued to travel on the left as they had done since Roman times.

To understand what happened we need to look at what we do today:

Question: If you are walking along a road with no pavement (sidewalk) do you prefer to walk with the cars coming up behind you, or facing you?
Answer: We prefer the cars to face us because we can jump out of the way if anything goes wrong.

It was the same before the French Revolution. There were few, if any, roads with sidewalks so pedestrians walked on the right to face the carts, wagons, and carriages that travelled on the left. Of course, it was the poor who walked, and the rich aristocracy who travelled in those carriages.

During the Revolution the side of the road you travelled on symbolised whether you supported the Revolution or were against it. The poor won the Revolution, as we all know, and France continued to travel on the right.


It did not end with just France travelling on the right because Napoleon decided to conquer most of the rest of Europe. As a result, everywhere he went the people were obliged to cross over the road and start travelling on the other side!

Of course, Napoleon did not conquer Britain and so we continue to travel on the left, like the Romans before us. Napoleon did not conquer Sweden either, so the Swedes continued to travel on the left until 1969. Sweden changed sides for economic reasons - it was cheaper to import left-hand drive cars from Germany so there were more left-hand drive cars than right-hand drive ones. Denmark (also unconquered by Napoleon) drove on the left until some time after 1917.

America and other places

The French Revolution produced many great philosophers and political thinkers. They were against aristocracy and in favour of the rights of the ordinary man and woman. The citizens of The United States of America sympathised with these ideas a great deal. They remembered the War of Independence against a foolish and stupid British King.

It is not surprising that if you asked them 'Which side of the road do you want to travel on - the poor people's side or the aristocrat's side?' they would answer 'The poor people's side.'

This situation was echoed in many parts of the world. Later, American car exports of right-hand-drive vehicles was also important.

Is it hard to change sides?

It is now but it wasn't in the past.

In fact, traditionally, when you drive a horse and cart on the left of the road you also sit on the left. This is so that you can make sure the wheels do not go over the edge of the road - which could be dangerous. With cars it is more important to overtake safely so in countries where they drive on the right they sit on the left. So it is not as difficult to change from left to right if you also change from carts to cars.

When Sweden changed sides in 1969 there were far fewer cars on the road than there are today - making it easier to change sides than it would be today. It is also important to remember that Sweden is not a very densely populated country. In the years before 1969 a large proportion of cars in Sweden had been imported from Germany with steering wheels on the left because they were cheaper to buy. Changing sides promised to make the roads safer for left hand drive cars. Even so, there are some beautiful photographs of the chaos on Swedish roads when they changed sides!

Here in Britain we have a lot of people with their cars living in a very small space. One of our roads, the M25, is the busiest in Europe. To change would be politically impossible. The cost of changing the road signs and traffic lights would be enormous: the cost in the lives of children and adults would be unacceptable. It is also difficult to see what the advantage would be.

Many visitors to Britain are unnecessarily nervous about driving on the 'wrong' side of the road. It is very easy to get used to the change. Most of the driving rules are the same and the local police (in Torbay) are very tolerant of foreign cars parked in the wrong place!

If you hire a car you will find it surprisingly easy to use the other hand to control the gear lever ( amer. gearshift/stick shift). Scroll down the page and you will find the cost of hiring a car in Torquay.

Are there any advantages of driving on the left?

Well, there might be. A Canadian study sometime in the 70's or 80's showed that it might be a little safer to drive on the left. This is because most people are right-eyed in the same way that most people are right-handed. When we drive on the left we have to overtake on the right. Because they are a few centimetres to the right of our left eyes our dominant right eyes are able to see the road ahead just a little bit better and we can make better estimates of speed and distance. In those countries that drive on the right the situation is reversed and the dominant right eye is not in such a good position to see ahead. Overtaking is a risky manoeuvre and the Canadian study suggested that this might make a difference of a few lives every year.

Are the British a strange and eccentric people?

I don't think so, but of course I'm British. My wife is Mexican - I won't tell you what she thinks!

This is where people drive on the left: Anguila, Antigua, Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bermuda, Bhutan, Botswana, Brunei, Cook Islands, Cyprus, Dominica, Falkland Islands, Fiji, Grenada, Guyana, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Ireland (Republic of), Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Macau (formerly Portuguese now part of China), Malaysia, Malawi, Malta, Mauritius, Montserrat, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, New Zealand, Norfolk Island, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, St. Christopher-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Swaziland, Tanzania, Thailand, Tonga, Trinidad & Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, UK (including Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man), Virgin Islands (British), Zambia, Zimbabwe. (59 countries).

Did you know some Americans drive on the left too? Yes, in the US Virgin Islands (St Croix and St Thomas) - information kindly supplied by Alex Horsley, Headmaster of the Chinese International School, Hong Kong. Alex adds 'it's because these islands were bought from Denmark in 1917 and at that time Denmark still drove on the left. Denmark switched, but the US Virgin islands to this day drive on the left'.

Studies in Canada have suggested that it might be slightly safer to drive on the left as we do. This is because we overtake on the right which means that our right eyes have a slightly wider field of view than our left eyes (our right eyes can see more of the road ahead). Since the majority of people are right-eyed as well as right-handed this improves their ability to make judgements about the speed and movements of oncoming traffic and is an advantage when deciding whether to overtake or not. Perhaps this saves one or two lives each year.

05 May 04,, 22:40
The author forgets to mention that everyone else is just plain wrong :)
Actually its somewhat a myth to say that most of the others drive on the right - might be true countrywise, but i suspect population isn't as one sided as people think.

India, Pakistan, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan etc all drive on the left. Here is an interesting discussion on the different countries :-

http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/List%20of%20countries%20that%20drive%20on%20the%20 left

I really like the fact it is a status symbol to have a car in Japan with the steering wheel on the left side - including the British cars !

Interesting seeing the Argentines forcing the Falkland Islanders to swap sides o fthe road and that it appears Austria et al didn't revert back after German occupation.

06 May 04,, 01:37
The author forgets to mention that everyone else is just plain wrong
The only one who is really wrong, is the one doing the opposite of everyone else. ;)

06 May 04,, 01:52
Ireland announced that it was going to switch over to driving on the right. However it is such a big undertaking that that they decided to pilot it. This week they will swap over all the lorries and buses, and if it is a success the cars will swap over next week.

Apologies to the Irish (i got an Irish background so i am ok :biggrin: )

06 May 04,, 01:58
What's a lorrie?

06 May 04,, 02:11
What's a lorrie?

british for truck

06 May 04,, 03:03
Actually its somewhat a myth to say that most of the others drive on the right - might be true countrywise, but i suspect population isn't as one sided as people think.
North & South America - 850 million
China - 1.3 billion
Europe minus UK and Ireland - 665 million
Arab world - 300 million

Just those are 3.1 billion. :)

06 May 04,, 04:33
british for truck
Thanks ;)