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Ever Wondered Why Some Countries Drive On The Left Side Of The Road?

We've always wondered!

If you’ve ever taken a trip somewhere where they drive on the left side of the road, such as the United Kingdom or Ireland, you no doubt found it a bit disorienting (not to mention dangerous if you looked the wrong way when crossing a street!). In the U.S. and most of Europe, we of course drive on the right side of the road, but in places previously colonized by the British, such as Australia, South Africa and the Caribbean, they’re used to driving on the opposite side. So why is this?

Looking back through history, we can see that ancient Romans may have driven their carts and chariots on the left for safety reasons. Although we don’t know for sure, it seems as if they wanted to keep their dominant right hand free to handle a weapon should they encounter any enemies during their travel.

As time went on, the side of the road someone drove on was mostly just tied to a particular place’s customs. Before cars, when people rode on horses and in wagons, there wasn’t much traffic on the roads, so uniformity didn’t matter. It wasn’t until the 18th century that Britain passed a law standardizing left-hand traffic. However, during this time, France still favored right-side driving. These countries ended up spreading their influence on road usage throughout the countries they later colonized.

In the U.S., right-hand traffic began with the rise of freight wagons pulled by teams of horses. Drivers tended to ride on the left rear horse so they could control the animals with their right hands. Another huge influence was Henry Ford, who designed his Model T with the driver on the left, which meant drivers had to stick to the right to better see the road.

The right-side traffic tradition began to catch on, with Canada, Italy and Spain changing to right-side driving in the 1920s, a large part of Europe in the 1930s, and Scandinavia in the 1960s. Places like Britain and Japan never made the switch, not just out of stubbornness, but because changing the rules of the road is both complex and expensive. Cities in these countries are designed to accommodate left-hand driving, so making the switch isn’t nearly so simple as it may sound.

Thinking of heading somewhere on vacation where they drive on the left but afraid of renting a car? Travel expert Rick Steves tackles this topic for American tourists and says go for it. He simply urges focus and confidence and notes, “The most dangerous creature on the road is the panicked tourist.”

Just remember that it’s not only drivers who need to exercise caution when traveling abroad to one of these countries. Many places that drive on the left have written reminders on the sidewalks for visiting pedestrians, but don’t count on the extra help. Remember to always look both ways before crossing the street!

Flickr | David Lombardía

Sources: History; National Geographic