History behind why some countries drive on the left and others drive on the right

08/05/2020

Posted by: Henry Egan

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There is a story spread among people that empires in their days have embedded more than just the effects in the economy and politics of its colonies but its traditional aspects too. The influence in driving styles is undeniable. But do you know, Nigeria as a former British colony has broken out to adopt the opposite side driving compared to the UK? And why some countries drive on the left while others drive on the right? They will all be revealed in this single post.

Introduction

Two third of the world’s population drives on the right and the remaining one third drives on the left. The figure is around 76 countries and territories including all 17 Oceania countries, 8 from Europe, 2 from South America, 14 from Africa, at least 14 in the Caribbean basin, and 7 from other Islands.

One can conclude from the figures above that the majority of the world drives on the right. The reasons behind this are largely due to three prevailing factors that I am going to discuss succinctly for easy assimilation. From the factors to why countries drive on the left and others on the right to the placement of the steering wheel. Fasten your belts as we travel around the world. Enjoy the ride of finding why some countries drive on the left and others drive on the right.

man-behind-the-wheel

The side of the steering wheel decides a part of the left-side or right-side driving system history

Factors that led to Left or Right Side Driving

These factors are not mutually exclusive events, in fact, we will see the relationship between these factors as we proceed.

  • Means of transportation: The means of transportation in the past (around the Middle Ages) was majorly by foot and by mounting a horse, those days “anyone who wielded some level of influence and power” usually carried a weapon to protect themselves against unforeseen attacks from highway robbers and thieves.

Right-handed soldiers mounted their horses from the left, thereby keeping to the left in order to wad off enemy attacks with their dominant hand, those trekking also took to the left to unify the movement.

  • Most people were right-handed: The fact that most people were right-handed kept them to the left side of the road so that their dominant hand could be free to defend against any attack from enemies.
  • Colonialism/Neighbourliness: Most colonies of countries and territories of either the left or right side driving took after their masters. Also, neighbors of early adopters of a certain type of driver have to conform with their counterparts.

Now we have a glimpse of how territories unconsciously adopted ways to which they now drive. Now it gets interesting as we will see how old civilization and revolution changes everything.

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Why Some Countries Drive On the Left

The practice of driving by the left can be traced back to ancient Rome. Roman soldiers are mostly right-handed; therefore, their carts and chariots are propelled with their left hand to provide space in the right so that they can use their dominant hand to whirled their weapons defending themselves and their territories against attacks from enemies.

The practice spread to other parts of medieval Europe. And in 1773 the British government considered adopting the left-hand traffic, which was eventually passed into law in 1835.

The interesting part is, Great Britain and the Romans introduced their style to their respective colonies, and that is the more reason why former colonies of Rome and Britain still drive on the left side of traffic till date.

Invariably their neighbors alike had to conform with their styles to avoid awkward situations which might arise with the need to switch sides. These continued until the French revolution.

Highway

The French Revolution spearheaded the spread of the Right Hand Drive in Europe

Why Other Countries Drive On the Right

Before the French revolution the rich and wealthy drove their carriages along the left side, this forced the poor people to move on the right. After the revolution, the elite class was forced to move in the right to blend in with the lower class.

And as Napoleon conquered other parts of Europe they were forced to adopt the right-side traffic, note that Napoleon was left-handed, and driving on the right proved to be an effective and favorable tactic.

In the United States driving on the right side dates back to the late 17th century when the Conestoga freight wagon was the popular means of transportation. This wagon is driven by a group of horses since there is no provision for a driver’s seat, the driver usually takes control of the rear horse holding a whip by his right hand and this gives him a clearer view of the road.

To this effect, Pennsylvania was the first to pass a law to keep right in 1792. Other states follow suit like New York City twelve years later, consequently, this norm spread over the rest of the US.

Third-Mainland-Bridge-Lagos

General Yakubu Gowon adopted the Right hand Drive system

How Placement of the Steering Wheel Affected Switching Of Sides by Some Countries

Ford further bolstered the right-side driving style with his 1908 model T being the first car with the steering wheel on the left side.

This was done to make disembarking easy. Ordinarily, the passenger seated next to the driver will alight unto the middle of the road if the steering is on the right. Ford's design favoured driving on the right side, and since the US is one of the largest car exporting countries, other countries using US-made cars had to switch sides too.

A lot of countries have had to switch between these driving rules, some of these include the likes of Okinawa in Japan after the World War II in 1978, Timor-Leste in 1975 under Indonesian rules, Nigeria from Left-hand drive to Right-hand drive in 1972 and most recently Samoa in 2009 whose move to make the switch was to enable them import cheaper cars from Australia rather than the US-made cars which are more expensive.

The Nigerian Case

Nigeria being a British Colony did the left-hand drive rule in its early days when still under British rule. Remember, the British practice Left-hand rule and obviously impressed their tradition on their colonies.

However, after gaining independence and becoming Republic, Nigeria as a free nation decided to shade-off British influence as much as possible and would thus decide to dump the Left-hand rule for the more popular right-hand drive system. This switch was effected on Sunday, April 2nd, 1972.

Lagos-traffic-in-the-60s

Nigeria dumped the Left-hand drive for the Right-hand drive system in 1972

Conclusion

We have seen the origin of why some countries drive on the left and others drive on the right, consequently, we have seen countries switch from left to right drive and vice versa. But we will not be seeing any switches soon due to but not limited to the following reasons:

  • Cost
  • Population density (human and automobile)
  • Sophisticated road network

We could take insights from Sweden whose switch in 1967 costs them a whooping 628 million kronor which is more than $400 million, and with world population skyrocketing along with huge investments that will have to be sunk into building new road infrastructure, you can easily see why most countries will rather stay where they are.

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Henry Egan

Henry Egan

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Henry Egan a poet, essayist, content writer, blogger and technical writer who is willing to read just that last material to develop the best content possible. Henry feels he is more of a new generation writer with a sassy and swanky style. You can be sure you'll get all the facts in and never get bored with his articles.

He has got a flair for technical reviews on automobile and cars. He studied Mechanical Engineering but his first love remains Literary Art.

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