We drive on the left, right?

In Australia, we drive on the left which can take some getting used to for many overseas visitors. That is because most of the world drives on the right hand side of the road. Have you ever wondered why we travel on a different side of the road to many other countries?

There are a few theories as to why we picked any side at all.

How many countries drive on the left?

76 countries drive on the left and 163 countries and territories drive on the right. Or in other words, approximately one third of the world’s countries drive on the left.

See the full list of countries and their driving side

Fast Facts

  • The countries that drive on the left account for about one sixth of the world’s population and a quarter of its roads
  • International rules for oncoming planes and boats are consistent and dictate vehicles must keep right to avoid a collision
  • There is some speculation left-hand driving is safer for ageing populations since the right eye is more commonly dominant than the left

The history of driving on the left and right

Ancient times

Roman, Greek and Egyptian troops are all said to have marched on the left and when chariots were introduced, traffic soon followed suit. Archaeological evidence in n Swindon, England, suggests Romans drove their chariots on the left with grooves on the left side of the road leading away from a quarry deeper than those on the right due to the added weight of stone. It was said driving on the left allowed chariot drivers to hold their reigns with their dominant right hand, and whip in their left.

Swordsmen and knights

One theory suggests because most people are right handed, swordsmen in the Middle Ages preferred to keep to their left so their fighting hand was closer to oncoming opponents. Right-handed individuals are also said to find it easier to mount a horse from the left, and it was deemed safer to dismount to the side of the road than the middle.

Wagons

One of the most influential factors leading towards driving on the right came from the use of large freight wagons in the 1700s, particularly in America. These were pulled by a chain of horses. Drivers sat on the horse at the rear left to use a whip in their dominant right hand, increasing control. With the driver in that position, the best way to see oncoming traffic clearly, was for wagons to travel on the right hand side of the road.

This could go some way to explaining why English motorists never adopted driving on the right. Larger wagons, common in the United States couldn’t fit in narrow English laneways so the need to drive on the right was less apparent.

Revolution

As Marie Antoinette declared ‘let them eat cake’, she not only brought about an end to imperial rule in France, she brought the end of driving on the left. Prior to the French Revolution, the aristocracy travelled in vehicles on the left of the road, forcing the peasantry to walk on the right. After the storming of the Bastille however, high society took to foot and moved to the left to avoid being detected.

Ford Mass Production Vehicles

Vintage Model T Ford

Ford’s mass-production of vehicles was one of the key reasons driving on the right was standardised in the United States of America. Originally, steering wheels were in a car’s centre but Henry Ford decided to put controls on the left. This brought about a shift in the side of the road travelled on for improved driver vision. Another reason, stated by Ford in a 1908 catalogue, was that travelling on the right would make exiting on the kerb more convenient for passengers “especially…if there is a lady to be considered”.

On the back of the success of the Model T, several car manufacturers had followed Ford’s lead by 1915.

Countries that have switched driving side

In 1919, more than 100 of the world’s countries drove on the left but that number now hovers below 80.

So, who gets to decide who drives where?

Not surprisingly rulers and royalty have had their say on which side of the road their subjects travel on.

Russia

The Russian Tsar Peter the Great introduced a keep-right law in Russia in 1709.

France

An official keep-right rule was introduced in Paris in 1794.

USA

Pennsylvania in the US passed a keep right rule in 1792.

Austria

Hitler ordered Austria to switch sides when the Nazis crossed borders in 1938.

Japan

Japan was forced by America to switch to the right during World War II occupation but switched back to the left when this came to an end.

Commonwealth countries

A keep left rule was made mandatory in Britain in 1835 and the Commonwealth countries followed suit. When many of these nations rejected British rule, they switched to the right to cast off remaining links to the British Empire.

Canada

Many countries have also changed to fit with their neighbours. Canada, for example, switched to the right in the 1920s to better accommodate drivers coming and going across the US border.

Samoa – a very recent change

With talk of revolutions and colonies, it would be easy to think the side of road travelled on was determined well in the past – but that i not necessarily so. Less than 10 years ago, the Independent State of Samoa declared it was changing from right to left hand driving to make it easier to import cars from Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The side motorists drove on was changed at 6am on September 7, 2009. A public holiday was declared to lessen the number of cars on the road during the transition

 

A full list of countries and the side of road driven on is below.

Complete list of countries that drive on the left (and right)

CountrySide of road driven on
AfghanistanRight
AlbaniaRight
AlgeriaRight
AngolaRight
Antigua and BarbudaLeft
ArgentinaRight
ArmeniaRight
AustraliaLeft
AustriaRight
AzerbaijanRight
BahamasLeft
BahrainRight
BangladeshLeft
BarbadosLeft
BelgiumRight
BalarusRight
BelizeRight
BeninRight
BhutanLeft
BoliviaRight
BotswanaLeft
BrazilRight
BruneiLeft
Bosnia and HerzegovinaRight
BulgariaRight
Burkina FasoRight
BurundiRight
CambodiaRight
CameroonRight
CanadaRight
Cape VerdeRight
Central African RepublicRight
ChadRight
ChileRight
ChinaRight/Left
ColombiaRight
ComorosRight
CongoRight
Democratic Republic of CongoRight
Costa RicaRight
Cote d'IvoireRight
CroatiaRight
CubaRight
CyprusLeft
Czech RepublicRight
DenmarkRight
DjiboutiRight
DominicaLeft
Dominican RepublicRight
East TimorLeft
EcuadorRight
EgyptRight
El SalvadorRight
Equatorial GuineaRight
EritreaRight
EstoniaRight
EthiopiaRight
FijiLeft
FinlandRight
FranceRight
GabonRight
GambiaRight
GeorgiaRight
GermanyRight
GhanaRight
GreeceRight
GrenadaLeft
GuatemalaRight
GuineaRight
Guinea-BissauRight
GuyanaLeft
HaitiRight
HondurasRight
HungaryRight
IcelandRight
IranRight
IraqRight
IndiaLeft
IndonesiaLeft
IrelandLeft
IsraelRight
ItalyRight
JamaicaLeft
JapanLeft
JordanRight
KazakhstanRight
KenyaLeft
KiribatiLeft
North KoreaRight
South KoreaRight
KuwaitRight
KyrgyzstanRight
LaosRight
LatviaRight
LebanonRight
LesothoLeft
LiberiaRight
LibyaRight
LiechtensteinRight
LithuaniaRight
LuxembourgRight
MacedoniaRight
MadagascarRight
MalawiLeft
MalaysiaLeft
MaldivesLeft
MaliRight
MaltaLeft
Marshall IslandsRight
MauritaniaRight
MauritiusLeft
MexicoRight
MicronesiaRight
MoldovaRight
MonacoRight
MongoliaRight
MontenegroRight
MoroccoRight
MozambiqueLeft
MyanmarRight
NetherlandsRight
NamibiaLeft
NauruLeft
NepalLeft
New ZealandLeft
NicaraguaRight
NigerRight
NigeriaRight
NorwayRight
OmanRight
PalauRight
PalestineRight
PakistanLeft
PanamaRight
Papua New GuineaLeft
ParaguayRight
PeruRight
PhilippinesRight
PolandRight
PortugalRight
QatarRight
RomaniaRight
RussiaRight
RwandaRight
Saint Kitts and NevisLeft
Saint LuciaLeft
Saint Vincent and the GrenadinesLeft
SamoaLeft
San MarinoRight
Sao Tome and PrincipeRight
Saudi ArabiaRight
SenegalRight
SerbiaRight
SeychellesLeft
Sierra LeoneRight
SingaporeLeft
SlovakiaRight
SloveniaRight
Solomon IslandsLeft
SomaliaRight
South AfricaLeft
South SudanRight
SpainRight
Sri LankaLeft
SudanRight
SurinameLeft
SwazilandLeft
SwedenRight
SwitzerlandRight
TaiwanRight
TajikistanRight
TanzaniaLeft
ThailandLeft
TogoRight
TongaLeft
Trinidad and TobagoLeft
TunisiaRight
TurkeyRight
TurkmenistanRight
TuvaluLeft
UgandaLeft
UkraineRight
United Arab EmiratesRight
United KingdomLeft
United StatesRight
UruguayRight
UzbekistanRight
VanuatuRight
VenezuelaRight
VietnamRight
YemenRight
ZambiaLeft
ZimbabweLeft

Keep left in Australia

Road rules for Australian roads require drivers to keep left throughout all states and territories. The punishment for failing to do so varies by state to state.

In Queensland, there are a number of possible offences for not keeping left. Failing to keep left when required can result in a fine and demerit points. Enough demerit points can lead to a loss of licence.