Why do some countries drive on one side of the road, others on the other side?
In today’s blog, the Honourable J.E. Côté shares his thoughts, delving into the origins of traffic law and changes throughout history.
A lot of things in the world become more uniform, such as the language of air traffic controllers. But one of the persisting and inconvenient differences remains. Some countries drive on the right side of the road, others on the left.
At the top of the Khyber Pass, in a wide gorge with steep walls, is the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Big signs warn northbound motorists to switch over from the left to the right side of the road. This may be the most dramatic of the few land boundaries in the world where drivers must switch sides. Even so, that certainty is apparently misleading, because now some areas of Afghanistan do drive on the left!
Some popular sources talk about which hand a knight carried his sword in. But some of the European countries which had the feudal system drove on the right, some on the left. Were all the knights in some countries left handed? Other popular accounts talk of which horse a postilion rode when he was driving a team pulling a wagon. But that was just custom or riders or horses, so the supposed origin is almost circular reasoning. And again, were postilions all left-handed in some countries?
I have often wondered about the shipping rules, such as two oncoming ships passing port to port. But though those rules were part of English Admiralty law, they more closely resembled modern North American rules of the road. Not English rules.
The English seem to have favored the left for a long time, and the French favored the right. Napoleon’s rule over the Continent converted a number of countries from left to right driving.
One might wonder whether road traffic copied railways. But that is doubtful. A country like Canada did not have many double tracks. And where there were double tracks in the U.S., some railways “drove” on the left track.
What was the Rule?
If we get to actual history, we see that our question, why one country always drove on the left or right side of the road, turns out to be somewhat misleading, even fictional.
In Canada there used to be few or no laws governing which side of the road to drive on. Let us consider Alberta. Maybe bylaws or special legislation governed driving in cities. But elsewhere, the Vehicles and Highway Traffic Act applied, and it governed driving on every road, street, lane, alley, … or public place. I looked at the version of that Act in RSA 1942 c. 275 s. 47(1), and the relevant amendments through 1954. That Act did not give any rule for what side of the road to drive on, except for meeting or passing. (The marked centre line and whether to cross it only came in into Alberta law in the early 1950s, and obviously could not apply to unpaved roads.)
For many years, the only rule was that when meeting an oncoming vehicle, a driver had to go to the right of the centre: s. 47(1). Not at any other time.
Anyone my age knows that in the 1940s and 1950s on ordinary country roads, no one drove on the right side. Everyone drove in the middle (even on a hill), and pulled over only to pass. There was only one set of ruts in the mud, gravel, or snow.
Lack of Uniformity
Nor is it true that the rules governing which side were uniform for a given country. For example, which side to prefer in Spain used to vary from city to city or region to region, even into the 1920s. The same was true of Austria into the 1930s. I have already mentioned Afghanistan. We will see that parts of modern China are different.
At one time (before automobiles), wagons and carriages in some American states drove on or pulled out to the left, not the right.
The same is true of Canada. Quebec and Ontario have always selected the right, maybe because they used to be a French colony. The Prairies also seem to have favored the right, though maybe no one knows why. But all the rest of Canada drove on (or pulled out onto) the left, long after the introduction of automobiles. The dates when the rest of Canada switched to the right side are as follows:
• British Columbia: beginning of 1922
• New Brunswick: end of 1922
• Nova Scotia: 1923
• Prince Edward Island: 1924
• Dominion of Newfoundland: 1947 (before Confederation) (but American military bases there always drove on the right!)
Military occupation can produce sudden changes of side. Japan and Britain both used the left, and the Netherlands East Indies did too (though the Netherlands chose the right). So Japanese occupations in World War Two had little effect on side of the road. (I do not know what happened in the Philippines.) Britain, Canada, and the U.S. occupied Iceland, but the British and Icelanders prevailed and stayed on the left. But the Germans imposed right-hand driving on the occupied Channel Islands. So did the Argentines when they briefly occupied the Falklands. Patriotic Falklanders continued to drive on the left, to show their defiance.
So changes of occupier can produce double effects on which side a territory drives on. East Timor has changed the side at least four times within living memory!
Switching the Rule
Many countries have switched from left to right. A number of Central American and South American countries did so in the 1940s. So did China and Korea.
Sweden had a plebiscite in 1966, with over an 80% majority deciding to keep driving on the left (contrary to Norway and the rest of the Continent). Next year the government of Sweden switched it to the right! (I say nothing about Brexit.)
Iceland then also switched from left to right. Portugal and Brazil earlier on switched the same day, though Brazil had long since ceased to be a Portuguese colony. But the actual Portuguese colonies around the world did not switch.
Not all the switches were from left to right. Samoa, Okinawa, Namibia (an old German colony), and East Timor have gone from right to left. Doubtless the same was true of other former German colonies in Africa absorbed into British ones during World War One. Rwanda and Burundi are considering changing from right to left.
In the 1970s, Punch magazine reported that the impending switch from left to right in one populous country had invoked so many protests from truckers that trucks were given a 4-month extension before they had to switch sides! That was merely a bit of the magazine’s xenophobic humor, not a real moratorium.
The biggest problem with a switch is not drivers, but signage and vehicles’ equipment. I will return to that below.
Who is Left Today?
Most countries now drive on the right, but a very large and populous number still drive on the left. Who are they?
• Suriname (former Dutch colony);
• the former British Caribbean colonies;
• the U.S. Virgin Islands;
• the U.K.;
• Isle of Man;
• Channel Islands;
• South Africa and adjoining countries;
• most of East Africa;
Pakistan (considered changing but did not);
• Sri Lanka;
• Hong Kong;
• New Zealand; and
• some Pacific island groups.
What Side Does the Driver Sit on?
Anyone who has driven here in a right-hand drive car, or in a left-hand drive car in the U.K., knows how difficult and dangerous that is. Even more difficult if there is no passenger to tell the driver when it is safe to pull out to pass (overtake).
That is why commonly left-hand drive vehicles are used where one drives on the right, and vice versa. But not always.
In the U.S.A., many early automobiles had right-hand drive, or centre drive. Henry Ford did not switch his products to left-hand drive until 1908.
One of Canada’s forgotten contributions to the Allies in World War Two was manufacturing enormous numbers of two models of Army trucks. They all had right-hand drive. Most were supplied to the U.K. and other Commonwealth countries, but not all. Some went to the U.S. or to Russia, and other places where one drove (or pulled out) on the right. A few used to be seen in Canada.
It is frightening to drive in the U.S. Virgin Islands. There one drives on the left on narrow roads. That is because the U.S. bought the islands from Denmark in 1917, and the Danish colony drove on the left, though Denmark by then drove on the right. All the vehicles in the U.S. Virgin Islands are big American left-hand drive cars. Similarly a lot of the vehicles in the former British colonies of the Caribbean are left-hand drive, though one drives on the left.
Nor is that phenomenon confined to that part of the world. The Japanese export a great many automobiles, and some of the inexpensive ones (possibly second-hand) are right-hand drive, being designed to drive in Japan. But they are bought and driven on the right side in various parts of Asia, including the eastern part of Russia!
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