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Why do American's drive on the right & the British on the left? Why does only a quarter of the world drive on the left?

Updated on November 12, 2013
Inventing the wheel
Inventing the wheel | Source

It has always fascinated me how different cultures vary. How different the world is when we are one species. It is great to find out these answers, and they usually stem back to ancient history and how that nation and culture first started out.

In terms of driving, about a quarter of the worlds drivers drive on the left. Britain being one nation that does and a lot of their old colonies too.

There are some sensible explanations to why this phenomenon has occurred though so keep on reading:

It all started with everyone passing on the left ...

Any nation on this Earth has had a violent history. Many societies were brutal and it was the survival of the fittest. In these times you would have to take care of yourself as well as your family and as such, carried around a weapon with you. A weapon of choice for societies (pre gunpowder) would have been the sword. In these times the horse was the prefered method of travel too.

  1. Since the majority of people are right-handed, and more importantly those in power were right-handed, men used to prefer to keep their sword arm closer to anyone who would pass them. Therefore, they would pass each other on the left, making it easier to defend themselves if attacked.
  2. Another reason was the fact that the scabbard, which housed the sword when not being used, was worn on the left, and therefore it would not hit anyone if they travelled on the left as it was out of the way there.
  3. A third reason, would be that a right-handed person finds it easier to mount a horse from the left hand side of the animal. If this person was to wear a sword then it would make it impossible to mount it any other way. To mount they would put their left foot in the sterrups and lift their right leg over, this was the perfect way to make sure your sword is out of harms way of your ride too.
  4. When mounting your horse in a castle or city, then it would have been easier to mount away from any traffic, so mounting to the side of the road. If they mounted on the side of the road it would make sense to travel on the same side to make things easier when you dismount.

With these four reasons, most nations began to 'drive' on the left hand side of the road.

Jousting on the left hand side
Jousting on the left hand side | Source

So what changed?

Every nation in Europe practiced these rules of walking and riding on the left all the way through to the 1700's.

There are a number of thoughts that have arisen from this period of why people started to travel on the right, but each involves France:

Technology was changing a lot during this time:

  • Things were starting to be built in bulk and because of this wagons grew in size to transport these goods. Due to this, these wagons had to be towed by more than one horse, often a series of horses.
  • These wagons were not designed to have a driver, but the farmers and business men who travelled like this still wanted to ride with it. The 'driver' of these wagons therefore sat on one of the horses.
  • They usually chose to sit on the the back, left hand horse. This freed up their right arm to whip the horses if they needed to.
  • With this being the case though, they could not see the right hand side of the wagon so it started that they passed people on the right and therefore assuring that they do not run over innocent people by accident.

The French Revolution:

  • Aristocracy in France at the time made peasants move over to the right because the upper class should always walk on the left, or so they believed.
  • After the fall of their upper class, the aristocrats would try to keep a low profile, or risk having their head decapitated; they began to walk on the right with the peasants.

The rise of Napoleon's empire:

  • Bonaparte Napoleon was a brilliant general who carved out a massive empire for France throughout Europe.
  • The man himself was left handed, so to keep himself safe he preferred people to pass him on his left and therefore he ordered his empire to walk on the right. (Everything that was said at the first part of this hub is only for right-handed people and so Napoleon wanted to make sure this met his needs.)
  • It wasn't hard to convert France to this type of thinking as a lot of the country already did this, as stated above, but he succeeded in changing the face of Europe forever.

Britain kept to the passing on the left hand side, and France starting the new trend of passing on the right. This being only one of several disagreements between these two once great nations.

Many nations have swapped which side they prefer to travel on throughout the 1800's. Many European nations expanding their territories and creating empires for themselves, this trend continued around the world: The British empire drove on the left, and French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian empires driving on the right.

With the onset of the industrial revolution in England and the invention of powered vehicles, Britain was one of the first to make left-hand drive mandatory in the early 1800's. Their empire followed suit, which included the colonies in America.

To this day many of the countries ruled by England have kept their traffic laws to drive on the land-hand side of the road, as shown on the map below:

People who drive on the right, and left hand side of the road.
People who drive on the right, and left hand side of the road. | Source

There are a few exception, one being Japan. They also travel on the left. The origin to this dates back to when Samurai's ruled the country in the 17'th century. It was written into law in the late 1800's when Britain helped to introduce the first railway to the country.

Other Asian countries drive on the left too, but this may be because of the power Japan has over the region.

Compare the above map to the empire that the sun never set.

The British Empire
The British Empire | Source

There are plenty of countries that weren't apart of the British or French empire though!

Dutch Empire:

  • The Dutch empire was envied throughout the world too, but after Napoleon conquered the homeland they started to drive on the right too.

North America:

  • A lot of North America was colonised by European nations, with England and France being most prevalent in the area. There are a number of factors that happened though that drove North America to drive on the right.
  • The British colonies, after they gained independence, changed over to right-hand drive to get away from 'anything' British and make sure their nation was truly independent.
  • Canada had a number of influences from the English and French as they still do today. It wasn't until after the second world war though that the 'British' left-hand drive areas changed over to right-hand drive to conform to the rest of North America.

Mainland Europe:

  • There is plenty of Europe that didn't find themselves a part of the French Empire but all the left-hand driving countries switched over to right-hand drive, with Portugal being the last in the 1920s.
  • Until then there was countries like Spain that actually drove on both sides of the road - the northern part driving on the right (because this was apart of the Napoleon Empire) and the south driving on the left.
  • Another country that was effected was Austria-Hungarian Empire. There was part drove on the right and parts on the left. The dividing line was precisely the area that Napoleon conquered hundred years before. After the break up of this country, it was only Austria that was effected, as the rest continued to dive on the left.
  • With the onset of the Nazi Empire in Europe in WW2, Hitler ordered everyone to drive on the right. So the last remaining countries that drove on the left now had to drive on the right. This remained so after the war as it would prove to costly to change things back.
  • Sweden eventually joined the right-sided driving countries because Norway was already doing so and this proved dangerous with how many small roads that didn't have border control on them.

America's ermergence as the most powerful nation on Earth

America established itself as the powerhouse of industry after Britains decline, and as such their influence on the rest of the world was very strong. Their mass produced vehicles which were designed to drive on the right, allowed other nations to buy reliable and economic cars to drive on their roads. This altermately persuaded a lot of nations to join the right-handed driving club!

My personal view:

Yes I am British so I maybe a little biased but I believe that riding in a car on the right-hand side is the safer way to travel. There is one major reason for my thinking on this matter:

  • Many drivers today drive with one hand. With the invention of power steering and greater responsiveness from cars as well as greater safety, many people do not feel the need to have both hands on the wheel at all times. Now, is it me, but if you are driving one handed, then you want this hand to be your most powerful and more responsive hand. In most cases this is the right hand. So if you drive on the right hand side of the car, and you drive using your right hand, then this leaves the left hand free to do less taxing jobs (and jobs that will not endanger your life if you get wrong like steering a car could!) like change the radio, change the gear, etc.

Do you think the whole world should drive on one side of the road, whether it be the right or left?

See results

Woudln't it be better if we all did the same thing?

Lets face it though, no matter if you think driving on the right-hand side or the left-hand side is better, wouldn't it be easier, and less dangerous if everyone did the same thing?

  • I do believe that every nation should eventually drive on one side of the road because it would be so much safer for everyone to do this. I know a few American friends who have said driving on British roads is a nightmare, not only because they are a lot narrower but because of driving on the 'wrong side' of the road. And yes, to get used to another system is hard, couple this with an activity that is as dangerous as driving and then you could have drastic consequences.
  • Yes car design is advanced and they take into account of right sided drivers as well as left sided drivers in their design, but just imagine how many billions of dollars or pounds would be saved if this didn't need to be taken into account and every model of car was the built the same. Surely this money could be best spent elsewhere.

Of course, things will not change for any nation now. To change the whole countries traffic system will cost billions and why would you spend money like that for very little, if any, benefit?

Comments

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    • CHRIS57 profile image

      CHRIS57 3 years ago from Northern Germany

      Someone told me with a smile that all countries that never faced a revolution still drive on the left side (UK, some Commonweath, Japan..).

      By the way, many traffic rules like right of way must have been introduced by the left driving nations. Right goes first makes much more sense for people driving on the left side. In Germany special rules were invented for roundabouts. Otherwise right goes first would lead to congestion on the circle. All could get in but nobody could get out.

      Anyway, a very interesting hub. I didn´t know that all goes back to horses and coaches and swordsmen.

    • JPSO138 profile image

      JPSO138 3 years ago from Cebu, Philippines, International

      Very interesting facts. You have done your research well and I really appreciate the learning...

    • Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

      Beth Eaglescliffe 3 years ago from UK

      An interesting hub. I think that an International driving license should limit a driver to those countries that drive on the same side as his own. It can be very disorientating when you first drive on the "wrong" side of the road!

    • PositronWildhawk profile image

      PositronWildhawk 3 years ago from London

      Very interesting. Would definitely agree that everybody should be driving on the same side but for the number of accidents that would occur during the transition period it just isn't worth it.

      Beth, I really don't think that would be helpful, due to the amount of travelling people are doing these days. Half my family live in Spain, so I spend a lot of time there, and the introduction of this license you propose would make my life very difficult indeed. This would be the case for many.

    • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

      Emmanuel Kariuki 3 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      The lefthand drivers think it's upside down to drive on the right and vice versa. The ideas you have given for driving on the right in Britain seem to suggest that it is the most logical way to move about. Besides, even when walking, it is easier to shake all those hands if people stick to the left, facing each other. I guess that tells you I come from a former British colony - shared on facebook and hubpages!

    • rohanfelix profile image

      Rohan Rinaldo Felix 3 years ago from Chennai, India

      A very fascinating hub! I never knew that carrying swords had anything to do with driving on the left, like in my country, India, which was once a British colony.

    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 3 years ago

      Interesting. I never really thought about the reasons for this.

    • profile image

      Ron 20 months ago

      The reason the USA drives on the right was because when they got independence in 1776 they had to make a decision to ride on the left or right so they wanted to do the opposite as they where no longer a British colony so they changed it to the right just to be different , To me USA isvery very insecure nation

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