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A Brief History of Left-Side Driving

By Dave Fox

The British and Irish habit of left-side driving dates back to the days of jousting. Most people are right-handed, and if you wanted to whack someone on an oncoming horse with your sword, it was easier to do so if you stayed to the left and kept your challenger on your right.

Why do different countries drive on different sides? It's left-handed Napoleon's fault.

Why does all of continental Europe drive on the right then? Blame Napoleon. Napoleon was left-handed. He was more concerned with protecting his own derrière than with doing what made sense to the majority.

As emperor of France, Napoleon ordered the French to switch sides. Then, as he went on his European rampage, he ordered the countries he conquered to do the same.

Stockholm, September 5, 1967: Everybody switch sides!

Nearly all of mainland Europe followed suit. Everyone but the Swedes, who sided with the Brits in the Napoleonic Wars. This was a problem in Sweden, especially in rural areas that bordered Norway and Finland. If you didn’t pay attention as you crossed an unguarded border, you could get crunched. But in 1967, the Swedes passed a law that on September 3 at 5 a.m., everyone would switch sides. How fun!

The Swedish government set up the National Right-Hand Traffic Commission to oversee the flip-flop. They printed a 30-page pamphlet explaining how to drive on the right. The army turned all the traffic signs around, and for a couple of months, speed limits were reduced considerably to insure that if someone forgot and caused a head-on collision, it would not hurt as much.

Ethnocentric Yanks on their first trip to Britain or Ireland like to talk about those uncivilized beasts who drive on the “wrong side” of the road, but roughly a third of the world’s population drives on the left.

Australia and New Zealand, most of southeastern Africa, a big chunk of southern Asia, Japan, a rebellious enclave of South America, and dozens of little island nations all drive on the left. (So do 29 percent of all Seattle taxi drivers.) So if you’re planning a vacation in England, the driving skills you learn will come in handy in subsequent trips to, say, Bangladesh or Tuvalu.

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Published on Friday, March 1, 2002

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