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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The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

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

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