Why Do Some Countries Drive on the Left Side of the Street?

Natalie Josef
November 15, 2011

I just got back from a ten-day trip in Europe and I have to say, there are a lot of differences between the U.S. and Europe. The food, the culture, the water, the customs—after five days in London, I was finally getting a hold on most things, but one thing that I was never able to really conquer is the way they drive on the right side of the street. I wasn’t crazy enough to try and drive a car there (I can't imagine handling a stick shift with my left hand!), but we did go on some buses and taxis. It felt weird for sure, but the strangest thing was when we were pedestrians at a cross walk.

I have spent my entire life looking for traffic coming from a certain direction and in London, it is completely flipped. Luckily, most of the streets had helpful directions painted directlly on the pavement, but I wondered how long it would really take for an American to learn to look the right way in London, and vice versa.

Of course, this made me think—why are Londoners and Americans so opposite when it comes to this sort of thing in the first place? Weren’t cars invented in America? Why would England flip things? Why is Paris similar to us and not London? Did London have their direction of traffic established with horses and buggies and Americans, being the traitors that we are, simply choose to do the opposite of our original sovereign, just out of spite?

After doing some research, I found that we don’t have much information on the transportation directions of ancient civilizations—all we know is that Romans drove on the left side. Many believe that a papal decree in 1300 required left-side driving in Europe, but there are no records of the decree, though there is evidence that Pope Boniface VIII ordered pilgrims on the Bridge of St. Angelo to keep to the right.

Surprisingly, the custom of driving on the left has a simple origin—feudal English society was pretty violent. Since most people are right-handed, swordsmen preferred to keep to the left so their swords were nearer their potential enemies. Also, for a a right-handed person, it’s easier to mount a horse from its left side, and safer to dismount the horse toward the side of the road instead of in the middle of traffic. If you think about jousting, right-handed jousters would need to ride on the left-hand side in order to face off properly.

It also appears that left-handed driving was never common in France—apparently, the French have always driven on the right. Plus, when Napoleon conquered various countries (France, Spain, the boot of Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, western Germany, and eastern Poland), he required that they adopt French practices, effectively forcing them to drive on the right. 

Of note, Napoleon never conquered England. In fact, the states that resisted Napoleon (Britain, Portugal, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) kept to the left. The division between right- and left-sided driving nations remained fixed until after the First World War. The trend to the right has continued into the 20th century, except in Britain and its colonies. To this day, India, Australia, and former British colonies in Africa still drive on the left. Japan also drives on the left—in 1872, the British contributed greatly to the construction of Japanese railways, and the custom of driving on the left was part of the influence.

As for America? When the British colonies were first established, Americans did drive on the left. But after gaining independence from England, Americans were anxious to rid themselves of all things English (and non-British European immigrants to America were right-sided drivers anyway), so America started driving on the right. The first American law requiring drivers to keep right was passed in Pennsylvania in 1792, and similar laws were passed in New York (1804) and New Jersey (1813).

In the 1960s, Great Britain did consider changing, but the resistance of the conservative powers and the fact that it would cost billions of pounds to change everything nipped the idea in the bud. Only four European countries do drive on the left—United Kingdom, Malta, Cyprus, and Ireland, and only about a quarter of the world drives on the left hand side. Here’s a map that shows which countries drive on which side.

Have you heard of any other theories about the origins of which side of the street certain countries drive on? If you have driven on both, what’s it like? Which side makes more sense?

Natalie Josef

About the Author

Natalie Josef is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

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By , April 14, 2013
"Weren't cars invented in America?" No they weren't! The invention of the automobile is credited to Carl Benz who patented and built a motorcar in 1886.