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Why are Vehicles Driven on Different Sides of the Road in Different Countries?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 17, 2024
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World travelers are well aware that the phenomenon of vehicles driven on different sides of the road is still common today. While the majority of countries require driving on the right side of the road, the tradition of driving on the left has some interesting origins. Here is some of the history behind why some countries have a policy of driving on the right side, while others require driving on the left side of the road.

In the days before paved roads and motorized vehicles, just about all forms of conveyance followed a pattern of traveling on the left side of the road. There was actually a very practical reason for this procedure. Since the majority of people were right handed, swords and other weapons were worn on the left and wielded by the right hand during battle. By driving a wagon or riding a horse on the left side of the road, it was easier to draw the weapon and defend against an attack by thieves and other threats.

However, the latter part of the 18th century saw the beginning of a change, with vehicles driven on different sides emerging in different countries. This was especially true in France and the newly independent United States. Again, the shift from the left side to the right side of the road was due to practicalities. As larger wagons were driven with teams of horses, the driver would sit on the last horse on the left in the team. The right hand would be used to drive the team, leaving the left hand free to use for weapons. This new arrangement necessitated travel on the right side of the road, rather than the left.

By the time the wagon driver inherited a seat on the wagon proper, the practice of driving on the right side was customary and remained in place. Still vehicles driven on different sides around the world continued. Countries that remained in the control of the British Crown often continued travel on the left side of the road. As Napoleon continued to conquer new territory in Europe, a tradition of driving on the right side prevailed. Still other countries around the world not under the control of a major power had no established pattern, leaving vehicles driven on different sides even within the same nation.

Slowly, there were some shifts in tradition in some countries during the 19th century. Finland continued with driving rules that required left hand driving until 1858. Japan, which did not have hard and fast rules of the road until 1872, made a decision to designate the left side as the proper lane of travel.

The movement from left to right continued well into the 20th century. The first official highway code in Italy was issued in 1912 and specified right lane driving. Canada allowed driving on different sides of the road in the various provinces until shortly before World War II. Spain adopted national traffic rules during the 1930’s, with vehicles driven on different sides in Barcelona and Madrid. Eventually, the right side became the norm in all of Spain. Today, roughly three-quarters of the nations around the world drive on the right side.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WiseGeek, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon924580 — On Jan 05, 2014

I hope there is no neutral country that permits driving on any side, right or left, according to one's convenience.

By haz — On Apr 11, 2008

it's cool and really interesting, keep it up my peeps.

By anon11220 — On Apr 11, 2008

If there is any rational reason for left, or right side driving, the northern hemisphere should be driving on the left and the southern hemisphere driving on the right. Looking at the atmospheric movement, it rotates counterclockwise in the north, and clockwise in the south. Driving on the right in the northern hemisphere adds momentum to a counterclockwise air movement, similarly reversing in the southern hemisphere.

We have very little in the way of tornadoes, twisters etc., in UK, where we still drive on the LEFT.

By Aldrinmarcuz — On Apr 11, 2008

Time is precious.

Life is more precious.

So regulate speed.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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