Visiting a country that drives on the opposite side of the road from your own tends to bring a bit of an inherent confusion. In all honesty, it’s just plain weird. But, as weird as it can be, the weirder part is just how countries chose which sides of the road to drive on—from sword wielding to military tactics.
Happy Sunday! Welcome to Holy Shift, where we highlight big innovations in the auto and racing industries each week—whether they be necessary or simply for comfort. Picking which side of the roadway to travel on isn’t so much an innovation, but its weird roots definitely deserve some attention.
These days, about 75 percent of the population drives on the right side of the road. And, although just seeing another region drive the other way is stressful in itself, adapting to the change can be even tougher—when the Samoa switched to driving on the left side in 2009, the New York Times reports that it took a two-day national holiday in order for citizens to figure the change out.
But near the inception of road traffic—not the modern type, but rather the days of chariots and foot travelers—everyone generally stuck to the left. The reasons behind that choice range from methods of avoiding attack to leaning toward the dominant hands people used to whip horses. Since it’s a bit too strange to recap altogether, let’s just go ahead and get to the individual regions.
In ancient times, Romans stuck to the left when traveling. That choice mainly stems from those folks being courteous to others, which we could all stand to do on modern roads.
According to National Geographic, the courteous Romans were much like modern society when it comes right-hand dominance—for reference, BBC reports that about 85 percent of people are right handed—and chariot conductors typically held horse reins in their right hands. That meant holding a whip on the left, and traveling on the left helped chariot conductors to avoid whipping others.
The downside of the choice to travel on the left also had to do with right-hand dominance—armed, right-handed passerby could more easily attack chariots and other travelers heading the opposite way due to right sides being pointed inward. It was a double-edged sword (catch that one?) for travelers in ancient times, since avoiding whips meant becoming more vulnerable to sword attacks.
Today, the Italians drive on the right side of the road.
As most of us learned in class, history is full of conquests. Turns out, a few of those conquests resulted in ordering folks to travel on certain sides of the road as well. Napoleon Bonaparte was a big fan of right-side driving, but it wasn’t as simple as that.
Per TIME, the rumor is that wealthy aristocrats took the left side of the road and forced peasants to drive on the right side prior to the French Revolution. In an attempt to blend in with the crowd during the upheaval, the wealthy moved to the right as well. Bonaparte later took right-side driving to Russia, Switzerland and Germany.
According to TIME, the United States even drove on the left at one time. In early colonization, wagons adopted the travel methods used by the home country of England. But that all changed by the late 1700s, as wagon drivers shifted their seat to the left and their travel lane to the right.
Today, the French drive on the right side of the road. The move that solidified right-side driving in the U.S. was when Henry Ford began to mass produce vehicles with the steering wheel situated on the left. With road travel sticking to the right side, Ford cited passenger exits for putting the driver on the left. He essentially made the practice standard at the beginning of the 20th century.
The legacy of Japan’s driving choices isn’t as clear or as long as the others, but the belief is that samurai warriors wore their swords on the left and didn’t want to bump others with them. That meant traveling on the left side, which caught on in the country.
The British later built Japan’s railway network to travel on the left, according to the BBC, further spreading the practice. The common practice changed in 1945, when the U.S. came in and made the Okinawa Prefecture switch to traveling on the right. Per the BBC, Japan switched back just a few decades later in 1978.
Japan still drives on the left today. If everyone still carried samurai swords too, the world would be a much cooler—but perhaps more dangerous—place.
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