Right side of the road

Why do we, in Singapore, drive on the left side of the road? Why do some countries drive on the right, and others drive on the left?

Roughly 75 percent of countries drive on the right side of the road: United States, China, and most European countries. Those who drive on the “wrong” side of the road are mostly old British colonies.

There are various plausible reasons why countries drive on different sides of the road. For example, most people are right-handed and this contributes to which side of the road people initially chose in the past. Ancient Romans drove chariots with the reins in their dominant right hands to allow them to whip a horse with their left. This was to minimise risk of accidentally whipping a passing chariot. Also, swordsmen preferred to keep to the left in order to have their stronger dominant right arm nearer to an opponent and their scabbard further from him. It also minimised the risk of the scabbard (worn on the left) hitting other people.

A complex history of politics gave rise to the right-hand traffic in Europe, though. There is a high chance that Napoleon’s conquests over many parts of Europe spread the official keep-right rule that was first introduced in Paris in 1794.

Although driving on a certain side of the road was mostly just a custom, as more people started driving, some uniformity was needed. Often, some of the decisions were made arbitrarily. Henry Ford designed his Model T with the driver on the left. That decision meant cars would have to drive on the right side of the road for the practical purpose of passengers in both the front and back seat could exit the car onto the curb.

Things however, got interesting in colonial countries. France had long been a right-side country and Britain a left-side country, so their colonies usually followed suit. But when they became independent, many countries had to undergo complex decision making in deciding the traffic direction: historical, political, and economic factors. Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand were previously under the British, so it was natural that traffic direction in these countries followed the British. Interestingly, Indonesia, who was under the Dutch colonial rule also drives on the left side of the road. This is because when Indonesia was under the Dutch, the Dutch custom was still a left-hand traffic rule. It wasn’t until Napoleon conquered the Netherlands that the Dutch started driving on the right. Samoa has become the first country since the 1970s to change the side of the road on which cars are driven. The Samoan government wanted to end its reliance on expensive, left-hand drive imports from America. It hopes that Samoan expatriates in Australia and New Zealand will now ship used, more affordable vehicles back to their homeland.

Did you know?

Almost always, in countries where one drives on the right side of the road, the cars are built so that the driver sits on the left-hand side of the car. Conversely, driving on the left side of the road usually implies that the driver’s seat is on the right-hand side of the car. Why? It was more practical and safer to have the driver seated near the centreline of the road. This helps drivers judge the space available when passing oncoming cars and allows front-seat passengers to get out of the car onto the pavement instead of into the middle of the street.

Contributor: Jeffrey Pramudita, Intern, MA Student (Language Studies), NUS

References:

Image: Old car in Kathmandu via wikimedia commons

 


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