why do north americans drive on the right

No matter how many times you go to a country like England or Japan, it s still a little shock to get off a plane and see people driving on the left side of the road. That is, if you re from the roughly 75 percent of countries that drive on the right side of the road. Wrong in this case is relative, depending on where you re from. There are a lot of differences in how individual countries do things, of course. The metric system might be the biggestвthe United States is largely on its own in measuring with feet and inches. Currencies and exchange rates are certainly country-specific as well, not to mention languages and customs. But all of those things go back hundreds of years. Automobiles arrived in the 20th century. Why couldn t the world standardize one system for driving? It s harder than you might think. Despite the modern invention of the car, the side of the road on which we drive has a centuries-old history. The fact that most people are right-handed is the biggest factor contributing to which side of the road people initially chose. Ancient Romans drove chariots with the reins in their dominant right hands to allow them to whip a horse with their left. That way there was little risk of accidentally whipping a passing chariot.


But if a warrior needed to do battle from a horse, he could attack a passing opponent on the right with his stronger hand. For centuries, driving on a certain side of the road was mostly just a custom. There weren t that many travelers and roads weren t paved or marked to direct traffic, so it didn t matter too much. But as more people started driving, some uniformity was needed. One of the biggest influencers of driving direction was Henry Ford, who designed his Model T with the driver on the left. That decision meant cars would have to drive on the road s right, so that passengers in both the front and back seat could exit the car onto the curb. Many countries eventually followed. Canada, Italy, and Spain changed to right-side driving in the 1920s. Most of Eastern Europe changed in the 30s. Scandinavia waited until the 1960s, but its countries eventually changed to the right, too. Things got interesting in colonial countries, especially in Africa. France had long been a right-side country and Britain a left-side country, so their colonies usually followed suit. But when they became independent, many sought to normalize with their neighbors to make things easier.


Today, most African countries drive on the right. Driving on the left means sitting on the right. Photo by Spencer Millsap / NGM Staff
So why do close to 50 countries still drive on the left? The short answer might be stubbornness, whichвwe should be fair hereвis part of the same reason the U. S. still sticks to measuring in inches and feet. But the more nuanced reason is momentum. Cities like London were designed to accommodate left handed driving, so switching would be no simple tweak. Changing the rules of the road is a very complex and expensive thing to do. And the more time that goes by, more cars on the road makes it even harder. Itвs certainly not a debilitating difference to foreign drivers. After a few minutes, your mind tends to adapt. But the most fascinating places to see the confusion might be at border crossings, where drivers are required to immediately change sides. British drivers who take their cars under the English Channel need to swap when they arrive in France. The same is true when crossing borders between China and Pakistan, as well as China and Hong Kong. Where possible, that seems likeВ a good enough reason to cross a border on foot. In North America, the task of keeping out of the ditch or swamp was more important early on than the task of avoiding other vehicles.


The definitive reference work on this subject is Kincaid, Peter. The Rule of the Road: An International Guide to History and Practice. Greenwood Press, 1986. ISBN 0-313-25249-1, LC 86-354. Writes Kincaid: In summary, different types of transport, all used by right-handed people, tended to produce different rules of the road. Armed walkers and armed horsemen tended to keep left to leave their swordarms free. Horse riders kept left in any case because they mounted from the left and stayed near the edge where it was easier and safer to mount and dismount than in the middle of the road. People leading horses with their right hands tended to keep right because the led horse was then protected from passing traffic. Carters tended to keep right because they walked on the left side of their horses, leading with the right hand, and by keeping right could walk in the middle of the road. to avoid collisions. Postilion riders tended to keep right because they sat on the left-rear horse and thus could better judge clearances. Drivers who sat on the vehicle kept left because they sat on the right to keep their whip hands free and could judge clearances better when passing if they kept left.


Kincaid describes other contributing factors such as conformance with neighbors (undoubtedly the reason for Canada), influence of colonization, national unity, imported vehicles, etc. Although we tend to think of a keep-left rule requiring right-hand controls, and vice versa, he points out a number of instances where curbside controls have been preferred to centerline controls. As of 1986, he counts 118 independent territories with right-hand traffic and 51 with left-hand, adding: The above figures show what a minority rule left-hand traffic is today. Countries which use it account for only about a third of the world s population, a sixth of its area, a quarter of its roads, and a sixth of its motor vehicles. A number of countries have changed their rule of the road, including, since 1950: Cameroon, Belize, Ethiopia, Sweden, Bahrain, Iceland, Burma, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana, and South Yemen. All these but Burma changed from left to right. The American expert on this subject is Richard H. Hopper, whose article Left-Right: Why Driving Rules Differ, appeared in Transportation Quarterly 36 (1982), pp. 541-548.

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