Driving on the Left

Driving on the Left

"Why do Englishmen drive on the wrong side of the road?" I get asked this kind of question all the time. But driving on the left is not as wrong as people may think.

Although there are various conflicting theories, there is some convincing evidence that the Romans drove on the left. Napoleon introduced driving on the right in the countries he conquered (which is why Britain and Sweden continued to drive on the left).

British North America (now Canada) eventually switched to the right, because it made no sense to drive on different sides of the road along the world's longest land frontier. And the Middle East drives right because the Ottoman empire, which used to rule most of the region, was heavily under the influence of the right-driving French and Germans at the critical time when its army laid down formal traffic rules in the latter half of the 19th century.

But in most of sub-Saharan Africa, except for the former French colonies, people drive on the left because of the British influence. They do the same in almost all the countries from Pakistan and India to Australia and New Zealand; only ex-French Indochina and the Philippines, an ex-U.S. colony, drive on the right.

Even Indonesia (which was briefly occupied by the British two centuries ago) and Thailand (which was never colonized at all) drive on the left. So does Japan, though nobody seems to know whether this is due to 19th-century British influence, or whether it is as deeply rooted in Japan as it was in post-Roman Europe.

Korea now drives right, but only because it passed directly from Japanese colonial rule to American (and Russian) influence at the end of the Second World War. And I just don't know why China now drives right, or if it ever drove on the left.

In Europe the Czech republic and Hungary used to drive on the left before WW2. Interestingly enough, a 1934 road atlas I have, lists Austria as a country that drives on the left, at least, part of Austria! In Vorarlberg, Nordtirol and the western part of Saltzburg, starting at the town of Lend, they drove on the right. 

In South America Suriname and Guyana keep left. Argentina did the same until after WW2.  

But by making the 'wrong' side his standard, Napoleon has left us a world permanently divided between countries that drive on the right (about 3.5 billion people) and those that drive on the left (about 2.5 billion). Napoleon was a great admirer of the Roman army. If only he had known which side the Romans drove on, it might all have been different.

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