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Driving on the left

Why do we drive on the left?

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| Comment | Keep Left & Keep Right Signs | Table of Countries |

I've always been intrigued that, like the UK & some other countries but unlike the majority of world drivers, we in Australia drive on the left side of the road.
Occasionally I bring this up in one of my DTAL classroom sessions - on asking "why do you think we drive on the left?", I find the popular answer is: "because the steering wheel is on the right hand side of the car."
Umm... no, in fact the "keep left" & "keep right" conventions or legislation adopted by various countries started long before the invention of the motor car - one of the earliest references I found refers to China in 1100BC!

On searching the web for info I found some interesting and informative pages but one thing is clear, not everyone agrees on everything and the subject is open to debate.
Below are my main sources. Includes references to trains, boats and aircraft:
i18n Guy  |  Amphicars.com  |  Gwynne Dyer  |  World Standards  |  Brian Lucas  |


It seems that keeping to the left was the natural thing to do in most places.
Imagine you are knight in shining armour* riding along a road, toward you comes another knight. He might be from the castle down the road and is just coming to borrow a cup of sugar - or he might be a mortal enemy. It made sense for you to keep left and allow oncoming riders to pass on your right where they were in easy reach of your weapon (most people are right-handed).
* Well, shiny on the outside. Personal hygiene wasn't a feature of those days.

For various reasons it was customary to drive carts on the left side as well e.g. to allow the driver to swing a whip with the right hand without it getting tangled up in vegetation along the road edge. It is even likely that ancient Romans drove carts on the left according to evidence from an old UK quarry. Ruts from empty cards entering the quarry are on the left, deeper ruts from laden carts leaving the quarry are on the right.

Opinions differ but many say that France also kept left until the Revolution.
Napoleon was a very successful general and forced his "keep right" rule on countries whose armies he conquered. Being a child of the French Revolution, he probably did this for the sake of revolutionary change (old is bad new is good).

So in a nutshell western countries like England and her colonies, and Sweden who resisted Napoleon, retained their "keep left system". (Sweden has since switched over to the right to match her neighbours).
America followed France's lead as they were then on friendlier terms with France than with their old adversary, England.
I also remember reading that part of a certain European country drove on the left and the rest on the right until after WW1 (Napoleon had only conquered part of the country before he met his Waterloo).

As you can see from the table below, the majority of world drivers (roughly two-thirds) drive in the right, and the majority of those driving on the left are the UK and former UK colonies.
Japan is a notable exception. The English say that British diplomacy persuaded Japan to make driving on the left compulsory but some Japanese sources deny this.


Drivers often undergo a personality change when getting behind the wheel and traits such as selfishness, impatience, inconsideration, aggressiveness, arrogance etc tend to be magnified.
This effect also flows onto the national psyche - for example conquering generals or nations are often very insistent that the submissive nation immediately conform to "their" system regardless of the difficulties and dangers to road users, as if one way was right and the other wrong (quite childish & narrow-minded when you think about it. But that's motorists for you. And ancient & modern leaders too!)
When Argentina overran the Falkland Islands they insisted that everyone drive the right. The Islanders were not impressed with this and most stuck to their normal practice of keeping left. I recall seeing an amusing TV clip of Argentine military vehicles meeting Islander cars head on with beeping & swerving, each side determined to hold their ground until the last moment.

Keep Right Keep Left
I've noticed that these 2 signs can be misunderstood by novice drivers.

They DON'T mean "use the left lane" or "use or the right lane", for example.
They DO mean that when passing the sign, you must pass it on its left side or on its right side as indicated by the sign.

They are mostly used on small traffic islands to indicate which side of the island to pass on.
In Darwin many of these signs are seen lying on their back and they are often knocked down again not long after being replaced - a sad indictment of the local habit of driving while intoxicated.
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«  Countries that drive on the LEFT
Countries that drive on the RIGHT  »
Anguilla, Antigua, Australia Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Austria, Azerbaijan
Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bhutan, Botswana, Brunei Bahrain, Belanus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia, Brazil, British Indian Ocean Territory (Diego Garcia), Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi
Cayman Islands, Channel Islands, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, Cyprus Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, People's Republic of China, Colombia, Comoros, Congo, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Congo - Democratic Republic of (formerly Zaire)
Dominica Denmark, Djibouti, Dominican Republic
East Timor Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia
Falkland Islands, Fiji Faroe Islands, Finland, France, French Giuana, Grench Polynesia
Grenada, Guyana Gabon, Gambia, Gaza Strip, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Gibraltar, Greece, Greenland, Guadeloupe (French West Indies), Guam, Guatemala, Guinea, Guine-Bissau
Hong Kong Haiti, Herzegovina, Hinduras, Hungary
India, Indonesia, Ireland, Isle of Man Iceland, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Ivory Coast
Jamaica, Japan Jordan
Kenya, Kiribati Kazakhstan, Korea - Democratic Republic of (North), Korea - Republic of (South), Kuwait, Kyrgzstan
Lesotho Laos, Latvia, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Liechenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg
Macau, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Montserrat, Mozambique Macedonia, Madagascar, Mali, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mayotte (France), Mexico, Micronesia - Federated States of, Midway Islands (USA), Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Morocco, Myanmar
Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, New Zealand, Niue, Norfolk Island Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles, New Caledonia, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Northern Marian Islands (Spain), Norway
Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Pitcairn Islands Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippens, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico
  Reunion, Romania, Russia, Rwanda
Saint Helena, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somaliland, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Swaziland Saint Barthelemy (French West Indies), Saint Martin (French West Indies), Saint Pierre and Miquelon (France), Samoa, San Marino, São Tome e Principe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia and Montenegro (Yugoslavia), Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, Spain, Sudan, Svalbard (Norway), Sweden, Switzerland, Syria
Tanzania, Thailand, Tokelau (NZ), Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Tuvalu Taiwan (Republic of China), Tajikistan, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan
United Kingdom Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uruguay, Uzbekistan
Virgin Islands (British), Virgin Islands (USA) Vanuatu, Venezuala, Vietnam
  Wake Island (USA), Wallis and Futuna Islands (France), West Bank, Western Sahara
Zambia, Zimbabwe  
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