Driving on the Left

Driving on the Left
“Why do Englishmen drive on the wrong side of the road?” I get asked this kind of question all the time. But driving on the left is not as wrong as people may think.

Although there are various conflicting theories, there is some convincing evidence that the Romans kept to the left. The reason was that soldiers should at all times be ready to draw their sword (with their right hand) so they passed oncoming people on the left. Napoleon was left-handed and would therefore have kept his sword on his right side. It is claimed that he therefore ordered his soldiers to keep to the right. Anyway, Napoleon introduced driving on the right in the countries he conquered (which is why Britain and Sweden continued to drive on the left).

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1867 and 1918 traffic kept to the left. It was dissolved after its defeat in the First World War. Gradually and for a variety of reasons, the countries and regions that had been part of the Dual monarchy (what is now the Czech Republic, Sovakia, Austria, Hungary Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Romania) switched over to driving on the right. A 1934 road atlas I have, lists Austria as a country that drives on the left, at least, part of Austria! In Vorarlberg, Nordtirol and the western part of Salzburg, starting at the town of Lend, they drove on the right.

In Italy there was no rule for the whole country: it was the responsibility of the local or regional authorities. Mussolini put an end to the chaos and directed traffic to keep to the right. This may seem strange, but until that time there was no real need to regulate, and there was very little motorized traffic. Indeed we see the same situation of various other countries, notably Belgium and Spain.

Before 1920. Milan, Italy.

British North America (now Canada) eventually switched to the right, because it made no sense to drive on different sides of the road along the world’s longest land frontier.

And the Middle East drives right because the Ottoman empire, which used to rule most of the region, was heavily under the influence of the right-driving French and Germans at the critical time when its army laid down formal traffic rules in the latter half of the 19th century.

But in most of sub-Saharan Africa, except for the former French colonies, people drive on the left because of the British influence. They do the same in almost all the countries from Pakistan and India to Australia and New Zealand; only ex-French Indochina and the Philippines, an ex-U.S. colony, drive on the right.

Even Indonesia (which was briefly occupied by the British two centuries ago) and Thailand (which was never colonized at all) drive on the left. So does Japan. Korea now drives right, but only because it passed directly from Japanese colonial rule to American (and Russian) influence at the end of the Second World War. And I just don’t know why China now drives right, or if it ever drove on the left.

In South America Suriname and Guyana keep left. Argentina did the same until after WW2.

But by making the ‘wrong’ side his standard, Napoleon has left us a world permanently divided between countries that drive on the right (about 3.5 billion people) and those that drive on the left (about 2.5 billion). Napoleon was a great admirer of the Roman army. If only he had known which side the Romans travelled on, it might all have been different.

British sense of humour