The world of travel and commuting has it’s fun trivia like…the fact that train tracks are as far apart as the width between tires on a Roman chariot, or that there is an interstate highway in Hawaii. Some of the trivia though, could impact you if you travel, like today’s post on which countries drive on which side of the road.
So we decided to take a look at this less critical travel and transportation topic that could possibly cause a lot of confusion if you aren’t prepared for it.
Driving on the Left
The obvious reason most countries that do drive on the left side of the road do is that they were a former British colony. We’ll dive into why the UK does it soon, but it may surprise you how many countries do. 76 according to Business Insider, compared to 163 countries (or territories) that drive on the right. 30% of the population but only 25% of the roads and only one sixth of the worlds land area.
Driving on the left happens around the globe, about one third of the worlds drivers do it in regions like Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, and Oceania. (Full list and graphics to follow.) In fact, Oceania is entirely left side driving currently.
Why they started driving on the left or right?
If countries formerly associated with England drive on the left because England does, why does England do it. Well, no one know for certain. Theories range from reasonable to ridiculous but the one you’ve probably heard most is that right-handed people draw their sword from the left and passing on the left allowed for a swift repost should the need arise.
Another theory, which frankly sounds more British, is that the upper crust preferred passing on the left and passing on the right was a trait of commoners. It also would explain why the US would decide to do it differently than those stuffy Brits.
One reason we doubt the sword explanation is that horseless carriages drove on whatever side of the road they liked until there were enough cars on the road to bother making a rule, which happened at Least in Brittan is 1835 with the Highway Act.
If train tracks trace back to Rome then does which side of the road we stick to? There isn’t a historical record but examination of cobblestone wear patterns suggests that they drove their chariots down the middle and if they needed to pass each other they did so on the right.
This likely resulted from the fact that right handed people would hold a horse whip in their right hands and have more room to use it if they stood on the left side of their chariot to drive it. Rome had a big influence on England so why would England drive on the left side instead of the right?
Ironically, we have better records of Ireland insisting that drivers stick to the left. As early as 1793, rules required a 10 shilling fine for driving on the right side of the road. This brings some to speculate that the Celts drove their wagons etc. on the left and since Rome was an invader their driving preference didn’t trump the native preference.
At this point its primarily culture and tradition. Well that and switching is a pain.
Countries that Switched
It does happen that countries bite the bullet and make a switch. In the 1960s both Sweden and Iceland made the switch from Left to Right, probably because the overwhelming majority of Europe drives on the right.
In 2009 Samoa switched the opposite direction, from right to left, but for the same reason, New Zealand and Australia both drive on the Left.
Between 1919 and 1986, 34 of the Left-hand countries and territories switched to Right side driving.
Noteworthy: Rotterdam was Left side drivers until 1917, while the rest of the Netherlands were Right-siders.
How to Prepare if you’re Planning a Trip
The side of the road you drive on tends to determine which side of the car gets the steering wheel. So it can be jarring to not only remember which side to be on, but to do it from the “passenger side” of the vehicle.
The subtle points are deciding where to watch other cars when you are passing them, or remembering which way to watch for traffic when waiting to make a turn.
If it’s too hard to drive from the odd side of the vehicle, you can technically take your own car to a new country. Just as you can drive your car into Canada or Mexico, you don’t have to operate your vehicle from the side of the car most people do when driving on the side of the road it’s legal to drive on. The primary reason most people don’t think to bring their own car is water. More specifically the oceans etc. that tend to separate countries that drive on the Left from those that drive on the right.
If you’ve ever read your insurance policy (some of us nerds do) than you know you are insured for specific situations. If you move your home address, for example, it should really impact your insurance status, but it does. (Mainly because your chance of losing the car to theft might change.)
So it’s worth asking, does my insurance cover me when I drive on the other side of the road (in a country where I’m supposed to–not just for funzies.)
The simplest answer is probably, yes. Insurance companies factor in things like, which country is nearby. So just like your Montana Insurance doesn’t typically stop at the border to Canada, your UK insurance doesn’t stop when you drive the Chunnel into France.
You may be more effected by rules such as enhanced licenses vs passports vs green cards etc. You license and insurance will probably still cover you, but your license may be inadequate to use as identification, which is a real brain twister if you think too much about it.
You should look at the rules before traveling as you may need to show more than license and proof of insurance in some countries. For example when driving in the EU in a rented vehicle, you will need a document that shows the owner knows you are driving it outside it’s country of register.
When taking your car to the UK, for example, they don’t have any problems with the fact that the steering wheel is on the wrong side, but they have strict rules for importing any vehicle and you’ll have to pay many taxes.
Okay to have interesting exceptions we would need to have a standard rule that we’re taking exception to and so far we’ve only indicated one or two. They are 1) most countries either follow the tradition of a country that once ruled them or 2) They switched to match countries they share borders with.
Here are some exceptions.
In Africa the major influence for left was England, and Portugal. The major influence for right is France. While most of Portugal’s former colonies switched to Right driving at some point, as did Portugal itself, except for Mozambique which stayed Left. South Sudan has it’s independence and despite having two neighbors that drive on the Left they have retained right hand driving. Rwanda and Burundi are Right Hand Driving but are actively considering switching to Left.
All of Canada is Left driving despite being former British Empire. This isn’t so much an exception because they match the US and who wouldn’t want to match the US? Interestingly, Newfoundland, joined Canada in 1949 but had already switched to Right driving just two years before. Of course the former French Provinces were always right driving, but BC, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, all changed to the Right in the early 1920’s.
Conspicuously, the US Virgin Islands are the only US affiliated country that doesn’t drive on the right.
Also, we indicated that unless someone brought their car with them, most cars in a country that keeps left have a steering wheel on the right and vice versa. This is not true in certain cases. For example the islands of the Caribbean and nearby. The closest big car maker is the US and while a large number of the islands were former British colonies they tend to import there cars from the US.
(Note US Virgin Islands drive on the left in vehicles that are designed for right sided driving despite being aligned with the US. Some people are just obstinate we suppose.)
Another common exception, right here in the US is commercial vehicles like parking enforcement or mail carriers which were purpose built with a steering wheel on the right.
List of Lefty Countries
- Channel Islands
- Isle of Man
- East Timor
- Hong Kong
- Sri Lanka
- Christmas Island
- Cocos Islands
- Cook Islands
- New Zealand
- Norfolk Island
- Papua New Guinea
- Pitcairn Islands
- Solomon Islands
- Tokelau Islands
- South Africa
- St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha
- The Bahamas
- British Virgin Islands
- Cayman Islands
- Falkland Islands
- St Kitts-Nevis
- St Lucia
- Saint Vincent
- Trinidad and Tobago
- Turks and Caicos Islands
- Virgin Islands (U.S.)