Why We Drive on the Right – And Others Don’t
Monday, Samoa will switch to driving on the left side of the road in order to benefit from cheap used cars from Australia and New Zealand. This gave Time’s Randy James to explain, “Why Don’t We All Drive on the Same Side of the Road?” It’s especially odd that two-thirds of the world drives on the right, since most of us are right-handed and driving on the left is not only much more convenient but was the norm for centuries.
Theories differ, but there’s no doubt Napoleon was a major influence. The French have used the right since at least the late 18th century (there’s evidence of a Parisian “keep-right” law dating from 1794). Some say that, before the French Revolution, aristocrats drove their carriages on the left, forcing the peasantry to the right. Amid the upheaval, fearful aristocrats sought to blend in with the proletariat by traveling on the right as well. Regardless of the origin, Napoleon brought right-hand traffic to the nations he conquered, including Russia, Switzerland and Germany. (Hitler, in turn, ordered right-hand traffic in Czechoslovakia and Austria in the 1930s). Nations that escaped right-handed conquest, such as Great Britain, preserved their left-handed tradition.
Nor was the U.S. always a nation of right-hand drivers; earlier in its history, carriage and horse traffic traveled on the left, as it did in England. But by the late 1700s, the theory goes, teamsters driving large wagons pulled by several pairs of horses began prompting a shift to the right. A driver would sit on the rear left horse in order to wield his whip with his right hand; to see opposite traffic clearly, they traveled on the right.
One of the final moves to firmly standardize traffic directions in the U.S. occurred in the 20th century, when Henry Ford decided to mass-produce his cars with controls on the left (one reason, stated in a 1908 catalog: the convenience for passengers exiting directly onto the curb, “especially… if there is a lady to be considered.”) Once these norms were set, many countries eventually adjusted to conform to the right-hand standard, including Canada in the 1920s, Sweden in 1967 and Burma in 1970. The United Kingdom and former colonies such as Australia and India are among the western world’s few remaining holdouts.
One would think that the holdouts would switch to right-hand driving if simply for the ability to market their cars more easily. But, as the decades-long effort to switch the United States to the near ubiquitous and much simpler Metric system demonstrate, people fight very hard to hang on to cultural norms.