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.

Like us on Facebook for more of this stuff.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.