It’s true today only about 35% of the world drives on the left. But, says Robert Hume, once practically everyone kept to that side of the road
A friend visiting from Italy over the New Year asked me why we drive on the left-hand side of the road. Most other countries drive on the right. Why on Earth don’t you?
Archaeologists have discovered evidence suggesting that the Romans drove carts and wagons on the left. In 1998 they found a well-preserved track leading to a Roman quarry at Blunsdon Ridge near Swindon, Wiltshire. The ruts in the road on the right are much deeper than those on the left, as would be the case with carts going in empty and coming out packed with stones. At least here, the Romans seem to have driven on the left. When they weren’t marching down the middle of the road, Roman soldiers are also believed to have kept to the left.
During the Middle Ages travellers never knew whom they might meet on the road. 90% of us being right-handed, knights found it safer to walk on the left so they could reach their sword with their right hand should they come across an enemy.
Pope Boniface VIII invented traffic control when, in 1300, he apparently declared that all pilgrims travelling to Rome for the first Jubilee should keep to the left. It was good thinking because there might have been as many as 200,000 of them – scope for some pretty nasty jams.
In the early years of colonisation in North America, English driving customs were followed, and people kept to the left. However, after gaining independence from England in 1776, former colonists were determined to cast off all links, with Pennsylvania turning right first in 1792.
Grain wagons were massive in the New World, and needed to be pulled by teams of horses. The driver sat on the left rear horse, so he could keep his right arm free to whip the other horses. Since he was perched on the left, he wanted oncoming wagons to pass on the same side, so he could look down and make sure he stayed clear of their wheels. That meant keeping his wagon to the right-hand side of the road.
Before the French Revolution, aristocrats travelled on the left of the road, forcing their social inferiors over to the right. Afterwards, they thought it safer to keep a low profile and joined the peasants on the right.
Napoleon’s conquests spread driving on the right to the Low Countries, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, and parts of Spain and Italy. On the other hand, states that had resisted Napoleon – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Portugal and Britain – continued driving on the left, and those that were part of the British Empire followed suit.
As the volume of road traffic increased, many countries began to publish highway codes, giving instructions to road users on what to expect.
Until 1924, some places in Spain, such as Barcelona, drove on the right, while others, including Madrid, drove on the left. As you came into towns, signs warned drivers if they had to change sides.
Italy first began driving on the right in the 1890s and the highway code of 1912 made it compulsory. However, cities with a tram network could stay driving on the left. Rome did not change to the right until 1925, followed by Milan in 1926.
Gibraltar, which has a land border with right-hand driving Spain, changed from left to right in 1929; Austria in 1938 when Hitler’s troops marched in; and China in 1946 – partly to distance itself from its enemy, Japan.
When Sweden held a referendum on the introduction of right-hand driving in 1955, 82.9% voted “no”. But the government wanted to keep in line with its neighbours, Norway and Finland, and campaigned hard, using a promotional song, Keep to the Right Svensson, and slogans stamped on milk cartons, even on underwear. At 4.50 a.m. on Sunday 3 September 1967, the country finally turned right. The day became known as “Dagen H” (Högertrafik), right traffic day.
The UK considered changing in the 1960s, but the idea was dropped: It would have cost billions to alter everything around, and drivers would have to be “re-educated”. Ireland considered the possibility in 2008, so as to reduce accidents by American tourists used to driving on the right. But the AA dismissed it as “completely impractical”.
Today, only four European countries drive on the left: Ireland, UK, Cyprus and Malta. Elsewhere, in India, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, and the former British colonies in Africa, drivers still keep to the left. What is practised nowadays only by a minority, was once the done thing everywhere.