General Question

augustlan's avatar

What makes one country decide to drive on the left, while another opts to drive on the right?

Asked by augustlan (47740points) January 3rd, 2011

What factors are considered? Are they even considered, or does it just ‘happen’?

Also, is one way superior to the other? What makes it so?

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16 Answers

MissAnthrope's avatar

The prevailing opinion is that it began in the times when people carried weapons. Walking, riding, or driving on the left-hand side allowed the person to hold reins in their left hand while leaving their sword/weapon arm free (for greeting other travelers or for defense).

Right- and left-handed driving
Why in Britain, do we drive on the left?

Don917's avatar

The majority of countries that drive on the left ( and have right-hand drive vehicles ) are England and it’s former colonies. In the US the greatest use of right-hand drive vehicles is for rural mail delivery. Unfortunatly if you wanted to own one and comply with DOT saftey regulations you generally have to import an antique ( 25 years and older ). Otherwise it is subject to more stringent saftey and emmisions regulations. Jeep ( only current mfg. I beleive), AMC, & Subaru have made domestic models of right-hand drive primarly for mail delivery. They are somewhat awkward to drive, but if you wanted to be the first kid on the block to own one….?

SavoirFaire's avatar

The origins of the practice are lost to time, though @MissAnthrope‘s story sounds plausible. Why it continues, however, can be explained in one word.

wundayatta's avatar

The Brits traveled on the left to make defense easiest, as @MissAnthrope said. The French drove on the right because Napolean was left-handed, and hated the Brits. The French and other right-hand drive nations colonized much more of the US than Britain did. Yanks hate the Brits. So they did the opposite of Britain.

The rest is history of colonization and a few other reasons.

Brian1946's avatar

In the context of automobile operation, driving on the right side makes the most sense to me.

I think most drivers are right handed, so it’s generally better to have the shift lever to the driver’s right, which is facilitated by having the steering wheel on the left side of the vehicle.

JLeslie's avatar

@Brian1946 I too always thought the oddest part for me about driving left would be shifting with my left, but I wonder if they thought it important to continue holding the wheel with your right? Back when roads were less smooth, alignment not as good, etc.

JLeslie's avatar

Plus, @MissAnthrope answer seems to be logical and correct.

Brian1946's avatar


I can see where it’s a holdover from when horses were the primary means of transportation, as mentioned in @MissAnthrope‘s answer.

Aside from that, I don’t think it would take much more practice to left shift, and I like that there’s a land where southpaws get some highly-deserved consideration. ;-)
I was born a lefty, but some Canadian Catholic school (I think it was Cardinal Richelieu elementary) converted my upstairs but not downstairs. I still kick with my left foot to this very day.

JLeslie's avatar

@Brian1946 I am a righty, but I turn (spin) and cartwheel to my left. I also prepare to dive, vault, anything that has a skip on my left. My mom is lefty, but cooks (stirs) and uses scissors with her right.

I’m sure I could shift left, but my left hand is much weaker than my right, and has less dexterity.

Brian1946's avatar


“I’m sure I could shift left, but my left hand is much weaker than my right, and has less dextarity.”

It would be the same for me as far as shifting is concerned. I’d have to do some practicing to get the strength and dexterity I needed to be a competent shifter.

JLeslie's avatar

@Brian1946 Sure, I understand that. Although my weak hand is likely much weaker than your weak hand. One, you are a man (I know a bunch if women will hate I said that) and two I happen to have trouble with my left wrist outside of it not being my writing hand. But, I am sure I could do it if I had to, especially on newer cars it would not be a big deal, best if it is a short shift. Well, actually best if it is a newer car and short shift no matter what side. I could barely drive my husbands old Porsche the proportions were so off for me to reach the clutch, and shift, etc. Definitely made for a man. Our newer Porshe no problem.

MissAnthrope's avatar

My mom, sister, and I went to Scotland a few years ago. Part of the trip involved renting a car and driving up and back down the country. Neither my mom, nor I, had driven left-hand before and I was excited to try it, but also kind of nervous. It was strange at first, the shifting with my left hand, but I got used to it much more quickly than I’d ever expected. It took much longer to get used to the actual logistics of driving, such as remembering which direction to turn at intersections and roundabouts, and reminding ourselves to stay to the left when it came to anything but normal driving on a straight road.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

I have driven on both sides, having lived overseas for a time. I found it easy to convert back and forth because countries that drive on the left have the steering wheel on the right and vice versa. You really do not want to purchase a car with the steering wheel on the right to be driven in a country that drives on the right, unless you have a death wish!

laurenkem's avatar

Now you’ve all got me questioning exactly what it is that I actually use my left hand for, other than writing. Let’s see. I catch lefty, I eat lefty, I smoke lefty; however, I cook, stir stuff, pet my cats, turn the pages in a book, use scissors, etc. with my right. And I’m quite adept at shifting gears with my right hand. But that definately doesn’t make me ambidextrous, as I’m not equally adept with either hand. With my right hand, I’m lucky to spell my name legibly.
I’m tellin’ my mom that those nuns stunted my ambidextrousness (is that even a word?)

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

My biggest problem with driving a car with the steering wheel on the right was skinned knuckles from reaching down with my right hand to shift and banging them on the inside of the car door!

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, at this point it all comes down to what you were taught and what you are used to. I heard once that several Americans are killed in England when they step of the curb after checking for traffic on their right, and don’t think to check on the left. Don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds logical.

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