If you’ve ever got behind the wheel abroad, you’ll know full-well that you need to consider which side of the road you’ll be navigating. Here in the UK we drive on the left, and the British Empire influenced many countries around the world to follow suit. The reason why we picked the left isn’t necessarily an obvious one, however.
While around a third of the world’s population drives on the left, if you’re taking your own car on a road trip from the UK, you’re very unlikely to come across another country that’s a fellow lefty. Take a ferry over to somewhere like France, The Netherlands or Belgium, and you’ll have to drive on the right when you leave the ship.
Unless you plan to go on the mother of all road trips to somewhere like India, Pakistan or Kenya, you’ll stick to the right as you drive through European countries such as Germany, Spain, Austria and Italy. The reason for this is rooted in Britain’s colonial past.
Commonwealth countries such as South Africa, Australia and India all drive on the left, with the latter providing a serious boost for the ratio of the world’s population which drive on the same side as us. It wasn’t always the case that there was such a divide across the globe though.
In the past, most of the world travelled on the left, and we have to go back to the Middle Ages to find the cause of this. The historical reason as to why left-sided travel was once all the rage, was to ensure that your sword hand was closest to anyone you were passing. And as most duelling knights were right handed, they preferred to pass their opponents to the left.
This is the same reason that medieval castles have staircases that spiral upwards in a clockwise direction. Soldiers defending their base would be able to strike downwards around the twist of the steps, while those attacking from below would have their strongest hand hampered.
In the latter part of the 18th century, large wagons became popular for transporting goods in places like the United States and France. Several pairs of horses were used to pull the wagons, which didn’t have a driver’s seat. Instead drivers sat on the left rear horse, which allowed them to keep their right hand free for the lash.
As it became difficult to judge the distance to passing traffic on the opposite side of the road, the wagons switched sides, and in 1792 the first law was passed in Pennsylvania to keep to the right. France implemented a decree of their own in the same year, and Napoleon went on to enforce this across French-ruled territories later down the line.
It wasn’t until the Highway Act of 1835 that driving on the left was made mandatory in Britain, and the rest of the British Empire was compelled to follow suit. Many of these countries still do so, whereas former territories such as Canada gradually switched to driving on the right.
There are some interesting anomalies across the globe, including Japan which drives on the left but has never been under British rule. One reason they may have chosen the left is that they received help from Britain when building their first railways – so their decision still stems from British influence, in part.
Indonesia drives on the left because it was once Dutch colony, although the Netherlands were themselves conquered by Napoleon in the early 19th century and subsequently switched to the right. And in 2009 Samoa became just the third country ever to go from driving on the right to the left, a move designed to make it easier to bring cheap cars over from nearby countries like Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Nowadays only four European countries drive on the left, although none of them are on the mainland. If you’re in the UK, Ireland, Cyprus or Malta then everything will seem normal on the roads.