The future of the left: So why do most countries drive on the right?

A road sign near Uluru/Ayers Rock reminding foreign drivers to keep left. Image: Joshua Aldrich/Wikimedia Commons.

All this week, our colleagues over at the New Statesman have been exploring an issue very close to that magazine’s heart: What does the future of the Left look like?

That, in all honest, is a debate to which CityMetric doesn’t feel it has much to contribute. So instead, in this article, we’re asking a different question:

What’s the future of the left? Y’know, the direction? The bit of the road where British people drive?

The rule of law

First thing’s first. Obviously it makes sense for a territory to pick one direction and stick to it. That way you don’t get people pootling happily over to the next village, where the rules are different, and promptly crashing into a car coming the other way.

Funnily enough, though, driving on one side of the road isn’t only a matter of common sense: it’s enshrined in the Geneva Convention. Not the Geneva Convention you’re thinking of, admittedly, but the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) which requires its signatories to have a consistent rules. It’s a matter of law, as well as precedent.

A divided world

Here’s a map of which side of the road every country and territory in the world drives on. Blue is left, red is right.

As in US presidential politics, blue means left, red means right. Click to expand. Image: Benjamin D. Esham/Wikimedia Commons.

 

At first glance, it’s a sea of red with a few isolated outcrops of blue. Those include the British Isles, as well as swathes of territory once included in the British Empire (when it was, ironically, coloured pink on the maps): that accounts for much of the West Indies, southern Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Hong Kong and Australasia.

There are also a few other territories with no particular connection to British history, but which drive on the left all the same: Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Macau.

On a map this looks like a minority of the world. And it is, but – thanks largely to the presence of a few big countries, most notably India – it’s perhaps not as small a minority as one might expect. In all, about 65 per cent of the world’s population are in right-driving countries; the remaining 35 per cent are in left-driving ones.


Most of the world is doing it wrong

In most places, for most of history, driving on the left seems to have been standard (you can see this in the layout of cart tracks on Roman roads and so forth).

There’s a reason for this. Most people are right-handed, so by driving on the left, that’d place their stronger hand in the best position to greet those coming the other way, or whack them with a sword, as seemed most appropriate.

It made sense in other ways, too. Driving on the left meant that people leading horses could hold the reins in their right hand and walk at the edge of the road, which was least likely to be a sea of mud. Most people find it easier to mount a horse from its left, too.

Even in the age of the car, though, it seems to make sense to drive on the left. In most countries, cars are set up to put the driver’s seat in the centre of the road, to give them improved visibility: in other words, in left-driving countries, the driver’s seat is on the right.

That puts the right eye, which tends to be stronger, in a better position to see oncoming traffic. It also means that the left hand can change gear, and muck around with the radio and so forth, while the stronger right hand is the one that stays on the wheel.

Put this all together, and you end up with at least some evidence that it’s actually safer to drive on the left – though this is limited, and certainly not worth forcing 65 per cent of the world to change its roads for.

So why do most countries drive on the right?

Oh, not him again. 

 

The standard explanation for this is that it’s all Napoleon’s fault. He was left-handed, it’s said, and so was more comfortable on the right hand side of the road. And one of the things you get to do when you conquer most of Europe is make people drive how you want them to.

This seems to be a bit of a myth, however. While it was Napoleon’s empire that standardised much of Europe, there’s no evidence he was just being personally awkward. Some stories actually credit a revolutionary proclamation which argued that, because the aristocrats had rode on the left, the revolutionary thing to do would be to drive on the right.

No one seems to know for certain. And the US switched from left- to right-hand driving without any help from Napoleon – though again, whether this came about because of the mechanics of driving wagons that required several horses, or whether it was the work of standardisation-fan Henry Ford, is just as contested.

How do you switch sides?

The fact people drive on opposite sides of the road on either side of the English Channel, the Himalayas or the Sea of Japan doesn’t really matter much. Huge impassable natural features are generally a pretty good way of forcing people to think about which side of the road they’re meant to be on.

But there are land borders in the world where the rules switch suddenly. What then?

There are a number of options for changing a left hand road into a right hand road. One is using traffic lights, to ensure cars switching from right to left, and those switching from left to right, don’t meet noisily somewhere in the middle. Another is to have one way sections – roundabouts or crossover bridges or brief one-lane roads – to ensure that there is no point where the two lines will meet.

Vehicles entering Macau from mainland China use the curly wurly Lótus Bridge to switch from right- to left-hand drive. Image: BurnDuck/Wikimedia Commons.

 

In a few areas there are no controls at all – you just follow the signage and take your chances. That, though, generally only happens when traffic is low.

No, how do you switch sides?

While a number of countries have switched sides in the past – often with the help of an invading European army – it’s actually pretty rare these days. I mean, why bother?

Generally when it has happened, the direction of travel has been from left to right, to bring countries into line with most of the world. That happened with a trio of west African countries in the 1970s (Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone). On the other side of the continent, Rwanda and Burundi have talked about switching from right to left, to match their neighbours in the East African Community, though that’s been on the table for a decade without anything much being done.

The most recent country to make the switch was Samoa, which is all but unique in actually going from right to left. The former German colony made the decision so it could import cheap vehicles from the left-leaning New Zealand and Australia. In preparation, roads were widened; new signage, speed bumps and road markings introduced; the speed limit was slashed, and alcohol sales were banned altogether for three days.

The shift faced legal challenge by a protest group, People Against Switching Sides, and even a new political party (“The People’s Party”), all of which warned of chaos.

But all to no avail.  At 5.50am on Monday 7 September, a radio announcement was made and all traffic stopped. Ten minutes later, when the traffic re-started, all the rules had changed, and Samoans now drove on the left. In the event, it all went off very smoothly.


But what do Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis have to say about this?

No idea. Visit the Staggers to find out.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of Citymetric. He tweets as @jonnelledge, and definitely didn’t write 1,200 words about the direction “left” purely to troll a colleague.

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These maps of petition signatories show which bits of the country are most enthusiastic about scrapping Brexit

The Scottish bit. Image: UK Parliament.

As anyone in the UK who has been near an internet connection today will no doubt know, there’s a petition on Parliament’s website doing the rounds. It rejects Theresa May’s claim – inevitably, and tediously, repeated again last night – that Brexit is the will of the people, and calls on the government to end the current crisis by revoking Article 50. At time of writing it’s had 1,068,554 signatures, but by the time you read this it will definitely have had quite a lot more.

It is depressingly unlikely to do what it sets out to do, of course: the Prime Minister is not in listening mode, and Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom has already been seen snarking that as soon as it gets 17.4m votes, the same number that voted Leave in 2016, the government will be sure to give it due care and attention.

So let’s not worry about whether or not the petition will be successful and instead look at some maps.

This one shows the proportion of voters in each constituency who have so far signed the petition: darker colours means higher percentages. The darkest constituencies tend to be smaller, because they’re urban areas with a higher population density.

And it’s clear the petition is most popular in, well, exactly the sort of constituencies that voted for Remain three years ago: Cambridge (5.1 per cent), Bristol West (5.6 per cent), Brighton Pavilion (5.7 per cent) and so on. Hilariously, Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North is also at 5.1 per cent, the highest in London, despite its MP clearly having remarkably little interest in revoking article 50.

By the same token, the sort of constituencies that aren’t signing this thing are – sit down, this may come as a shock – the sort of places that tended to vote Leave in 2016. Staying with the London area, the constituencies of the Essex fringe (Ilford South, Hornchurch & Upminster, Romford) are struggling to break 1 per cent, and some (Dagenham & Rainham) have yet to manage half that. You can see similar figures out west by Heathrow.

And you can see the same pattern in the rest of the country too: urban and university constituencies signing in droves, suburban and town ones not bothering. The only surprise here is that rural ones generally seem to be somewhere in between.

The blue bit means my mouse was hovering over that constituency when I did the screenshot, but I can’t be arsed to redo.

One odd exception to this pattern is the West Midlands, where even in the urban core nobody seems that bothered. No idea, frankly, but interesting, in its way:

Late last year another Brexit-based petition took off, this one in favour of No Deal. It’s still going, at time of writing, albeit only a third the size of the Revoke Article 50 one and growing much more slowly.

So how does that look on the map? Like this:

Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit of an inversion of the new one: No Deal is most popular in suburban and rural constituencies, while urban and university seats don’t much fancy it. You can see that most clearly by zooming in on London again:

Those outer east London constituencies in which people don’t want to revoke Article 50? They are, comparatively speaking, mad for No Deal Brexit.

The word “comparatively” is important here: far fewer people have signed the No Deal one, so even in those Brexit-y Essex fringe constituencies, the actual number of people signing it is pretty similar the number saying Revoke. But nonetheless, what these two maps suggest to me is that the new political geography revealed by the referendum is still largely with us.


In the 20 minutes it’s taken me to write this, the number of signatures on the Revoke Article 50 has risen to 1,088,822, by the way. Will of the people my arse.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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