General Question

JackAdams's avatar

Did you know that there is a scientifically simple explanation why Brits & Aussies & Japanese drive on the "wrong" side of the car/road?

Asked by JackAdams (6497points) August 29th, 2008

Here it is:

When the car was first developed/invented, debate surfaced about on which side of the vehicle, the driver should sit.

Keep in mind that, in those days, all cars were operated with a stick shift lever, mounted into the floor of the vehicles.

Some engineers logically reasoned that the gearshift lever should be placed on the driver’s right-hand side, because the overwhelming majority of human beings are RIGHT-HANDED, and the gearshift lever should be operated with one’s “dominant” hand.

Thus, it was decided, and correctly so, that the driver should sit on the left side of the automobile, and operate the floor-mounted gearshiuft lever with his/her right hand.

Even in Austalia and the UK and Japan, the majority of the populace are right-handed.

Now you know why the USA & Canada & Mexico are “right.”

August 29, 2008, 9:30 AM EDT

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25 Answers

Poser's avatar

Guess I should move to Australia.

blastfamy's avatar

It depends on whether or not you see shifting or steering as the mindless activity. Personally, I think it more important to have the dominant hand controlling the direction of motion rather than the gear the car is in.

Scrumpulator's avatar

Well then, I guess that solves it. So why is it illegal to drive a right side driver car in the United states, speaking in your language, shouldn’t a lefty get that right?

blastfamy's avatar

It’s illegal? I thought you just had to have a permit!

Poser's avatar

Maybe because it’s safer to have the driver sitting toward the center divider. Harder to see if you’re drifting into oncoming traffic if you’re sitting on the wrong side of the car.

JackAdams's avatar

It is not “illegal” to drive a right-side car in the USA. The USPS has such cars, for use on rural routes, so the driver doesn’t have to leave the car, to deposit mail in country mailboxes.

August 29, 2008, 9:41 AM EDT

wundayatta's avatar

It might have to do with buggy whips. If you hold the reins in your right hand, and the whip in your left hand. If you drive on the left, then when you use the whip, you have less chance of hitting a horse or driver in a carriage coming past you on your right. Having never driven a carriage, though, this seems awkward to me. I’d probably hold the reins in my left hand and the whip in my right, necessitating a switch of road sides.

When the US seceded from Britain, we had to do things differently. We changed sides of the road. We changed the proper hands for using knife and fork.

As horse power gave way to internal combustion power, in many nations, they stayed where they were. The nations that were part of the British empire generally stayed on the left, but some switched. Europe (except for Britain) went to the right hand side. I’m not sure where India and Pakistan are.

Lightlyseared's avatar


You ride on the left with the joust in your right hand.

JackAdams's avatar

I’ve seen jousters (at the Excaliber Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas) hold the lance in their left hands/arms, while holding the reins of the horse in their right hand.

The lances are made of easily broken wood, to protect the jousters from serious injury.

August 29, 2008, 10:05 AM EDT

jrpowell's avatar

This isn’t really a question. You are stating weird shit that is in your head. I can do that too. And this place would go to shit if everyone did it.

JackAdams's avatar

@johnpowell: I am not doing what you allege. It is a FACT that the lances the jousters use, are indeed made of easily broken wood.

I had a cousin who was a horse there, which is how I know.

August 29, 2008, 10:58 AM EDT

Lightlyseared's avatar

@jack Sorry I should have made myself more clear. I was talking about medieval jousting not a Las Vegas floor show. A real lance is made of a solid oak tree and would have taken a considerable blow to cause it to shatter

Any how my point was there was a tradition in Britain that can be traced back to tournaments that we ride/drive or whatever on the left.

gailcalled's avatar

@Jack; if you ask a question and then answer it yourself, why not skip the typing and entering part?

JackAdams's avatar

My question was, “DID YOU KNOW?”

How would I possibly KNOW if someone KNOWS?

I asked if “they” KNEW, to find out if they knew.

Evidently, judging from their answers, “they” did NOT know, you know?

August 29, 2008, 2:26 PM EDT

cwilbur's avatar

Do you have a citation for this? It sounds like nonsense to me.

JackAdams's avatar

The ACCUSED doesn’t have to prove ANYTHING.

It is up to the ACCUSER to prove any allegations.

Feel free.

August 29, 2008, 3:05 PM EDT

Lightlyseared's avatar

OK further to my jousting answer.

Up to the late 1700’s, everybody travelled on the left side of the road because it’s the sensible option for feudal, violent societies of mostly right-handed people.

Jousting knights with their lances under their right arm naturally passed on each other’s right, and if you passed a stranger on the road you walked on the left to ensure that your protective sword arm was between yourself and him.

Revolutionary France, however, overturned this practice as part of its sweeping social rethink. A change was carried out all over continental Europe by Napoleon.The reason it changed under Napoleon was because he was left handed his armies had to march on the right so he could keep his sword arm between him and any opponent.

From then on, any part of the world which was at some time part of the British Empire was thus left hand and any part colonised by the French was right hand.

In America, the French colonised the southern states (Louisiana for instance) and the Canadian east coast (Quebec). The Dutch colonised New York (or New Amsterdam). The Spanish and Portugese colonised the southern Americas. So The British were a minority in shaping the ‘traffic’.

The drive-on-the-right policy was adopted by the USA, which was anxious to cast off all remaining links with its British colonial past

Once America drove on the right, left-side driving was ultimately doomed. If you wanted a good reliable vehicle, you bought American, for a period they only manufactured right-hand-drive cars. From then on many countries changed out of necessity.

Why they drive on the left in Japan however is a long and complicated tale

wundayatta's avatar

Oh, please sir. Could we have that tale (about Japan)?

Lightlyseared's avatar

Oh go on then cause I’m bored.

It is considered certain that at least among Samurai warriors, left-side passage had been observed for the same reasons as mentioned above. Left-side passage not only allowed right-handed Samurai to draw their swords more easily in case of emergency but also prevented two mutually approaching samurai from getting into a duel when the sheaths of their swords hit each other, which happened quite often and was a bit embarassing all round.Samurai ruled the Japanese society during Edo period (1603–1867). And left-side passage suited their peacetime lifestyle. So left-side passage could be considerably prevalent in Japan back then.

However this doesn’t mean that all the other people in society (you know the farmers, craftsmen, merchants etc.) strictly kept left-hand traffic. These people did not carry swords in the first place. Furthermore, it had been a traditional custom in Japan to put up nameplates on the right posts of the gates when you see houses from the outside. It had also been a traditional custom here to show names of the bridges in Chinese characters (therefore more politely) on the right posts of the bridges when one faced the bridge while those in Japanese syllabics on the left posts. Two Europeans ( Engelbert Kaempfer and Carl Peter Thunberg) wrote that people were keeping to the left. But it is possible that non-Samurai people were keeping to the left only when they came up against top brasses like Samurai or foreigners. People in Japan could be moving every which way with the exception of Samurai warriors.

The most decisive factor in the Japanese history that brought about our present left-side driving came in 1868, when isolationist feudalism was replaced by Western-style democracy (though it was nominal democracy back then). The Japanese started absorbing Western civilization like fury. The railway system was one of the most prominent intake from the West at that time. Three countries approached the then Japanese government in terms of the introduction of the railway system: USA, France and UK. At first France and USA prevailed but in the end UK swayed away Japanese government decision by offering a state-run railway plan which best agreed with Japanese officials’ idea. In 1872 the first Japanese railway ran with English technical aid. It was, of course, left-side driving (at stations, I mean, the main line was single-track). This is proven by the photos or paintings drawn those days. A massive network of railways had been built ever since, all of which were left-side running. If American or French railway had been built, instead of English, we might have found right-side traffic in today’s Japan.

But the left-hand traffic discussed above is still limited to railways. The biggest avenue that effectively promoted left-side traffic on the Japanese road system is considered to be horse railways, and its successor: electric tram cars.

However in the 19th century the Japanese laws and orders on the passage of roads seemed still confused. Stage Coach Order issued by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police in 1881 said mutually approaching horses and vehicles had to avoid each other by shifting to the left. But an order issued by the same Tokyo police in 1885 stated that general horses and vehicles had to avoid to the left but when they met army troops they had to avoid to the right. Japanese armies were keeping right on roads, as did their ideas. Osaka, which is the second largest city in Japan, issued an order in 1872 that horses and vehicles had to keep to the right of roads. It wasn’t until 1924 that they actually decided to enforce left hand traffic

cwilbur's avatar

JackAdams, what you posted sounds like arrant nonsense. I’m asking for some evidence that you didn’t just make it up out of whole cloth. Seeing none, I’m going to conclude that you pulled it out of your ass.

If that’s not the impression you care to give, I recommend posting less bullshit or citing sources for extraordinary claims.

MacBean's avatar

It’s not illegal to drive a right-hand drive car in the US. You don’t need a permit or any kind of special license, either. My father is a rural mail carrier, so he has one. My mother has one, as well, for backup in case anything goes wrong with his. When I was learning to drive, that’s what I started with, until my grandmother gave me her old “normal” car.

wundayatta's avatar

@lightlyseared. Are we talking tuna? Lightly seared, I mean?

It looks like you are London based, but when you discuss Japan’s present-day left-side driving, you say “our.” Is there a particular reason you aver ownership of Japanese custom?

Thanks muchly for the explanation. It made for good reading, and was quite interesting.

Lightlyseared's avatar

the stuff about Japan came from the (Japanese) bloke who lives in my flat (hospital provided). Asked him about it this earlier and he sent me am email explaining. I had to cut it down some what as it went on and on. So no I’m not Japanese but I do know one who obviously has too much spate time on his hands.obviously

wundayatta's avatar

@lightlyseared: I thought we were supposed to include attribution the first time around? ;-)

Thank your flatmate for me. It was an interesting read.

you didn’t happen to go to public school in Oxford by any chance?

Poser's avatar

Mmmm…I just “lightly seared” some tuna myself. It was deeelish!

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