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Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road

Updated on June 5, 2014
Seven Mile Bridge
Seven Mile Bridge

History

Only about a quarter of countries now drive on the left and most of those are former British colonies. Although this does seem peculiar to the right-hand driving majority the initial reasons were actually perfectly logical.

Historically everyone travelled on the left-hand side of the road, or in those early days a dirt track. This made sense because most people were right handed, and as you wandered along on foot or on horseback, if you met someone coming the other way, you wanted to be in the best possible position to protect yourself from a potential attack by having your sword arm between them and you.

The first major changes occurred during the French Revolution when Napoleon came to power. He was left handed so he ordered his armies to march on the right so he could keep his sword arm between himself and any possible enemy. After that all countries which had been colonised by France introduced the proceeding on the right-hand side system.

The Dutch, French, Portuguese and Spanish having colonised parts of North and nearly all of South America ensured that most of those territories adopted the right-hand side for travellers. The rest of the United States was happy to go along with this as it was seen as opportunity to cut another historic link with Britain. Many former British overseas colonies also changed for the same reasons as soon as they obtained independence.

Today Britain still drives on the left despite the wishes of many of its allies for it to change to the same side of the road as all of the other European countries and most of the rest of the world. It is unlikely to ever happen now as the cost would be prohibitive, running into billions of pounds.

Strangely enough safety and an increase in accidents is not a major concern in changing from one side of the road to another. When Sweden changed to driving on the right-hand side of the road in 1967, accidents decreased. This was because people started driving more carefully and paying more attention to road signs and markings.

Bangkok Roads
Bangkok Roads

So how difficult is it to change from driving one side of the road to the other?

Generally most people initially find the experience rather strange but then adapt quite quickly. The most difficult manoeuvres are considered to be turning, shifting (or changing) gears and reversing.

Problems encountered driving on the left-hand side of the road, after being used to driving on the right-hand side.

People found shifting gears with the left hand an issue as well as having to make long right hand turns and take tight left hand corners. These types of turning manoeuvres required a lot of concentration to avoid hitting the kerb or straying into the wrong side of the road.

Some drivers found that switching on the turn signal, which is normally seen as an automatic act, often resulted in the windscreen wipers being turned on by mistake.

Problems encountered driving on the right-hand side of the road, after being used to driving on the left-hand side.

Changing gears again was an issue as a persons automatic reflex was to change with their left hand and while adjusting to driving from the left seat people found their hand was sometimes hitting of the inside door before they remembered the gear lever was now on the right-hand side.

Another issue was found to be, because they were used to having the kerb on their left-hand side, it required a conscious effort by the driver to stay close to the left or in the centre of a lane.

Those whose natural driving style is to drive with their right hand on the steering wheel and their left on the gear shift found it very difficult to get out of this habit. Having nowhere to put their hand they were resting it on part of the door panelling.

Common Problems

Because of the way a persons brain is conditioned it is very easy to automatically default to the side of the road you are most used to driving on when turning left or right from a side road onto a main road. This is especially true if there is no other traffic about or parked cars or road signs which can be used as a reminder.

Reversing proved a problem to some, due to having to turn their head the other way to look back, with early reversing attempts sometimes resulting in their head coming into contact with the driver’s side window.

Walking to the wrong side of the car was also a minor, but possibly embarrassing, issue for some which can take a number of weeks to get used to.

Familiar Traffic Jam
Familiar Traffic Jam

So which side of the road is safer to drive on?

There is no particular evidence that one side of the road is safer than the other especially once a person has adapted to the rules of the road. A purely personal opinion would suggest that historically, as most people are right handed, if they are distracted they would tend to veer off to the right. This would mean, if they were driving on the right-hand side of the road, they would end up on a kerb or in a ditch rather than drift into oncoming traffic. This is only my own unscientific thoughts on the subject.

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@ 2013 Brian McKechnie (aka WorldEarth)

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    • travmaj profile image

      travmaj 3 years ago from australia

      This is fascinating, I'd never thought about why we drive on the left. Great historical explanation, I like the Napoleon connection. When travelling, I find the switch to driving on the right too difficult - creature of habit I'm afraid.

    • World Earth profile image
      Author

      Brian 3 years ago from Ayrshire, Scotland

      Thanks for your kind comments and views. I agree switching from the side you are used to is rather stressful. Brian

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