Why do the British Drive on the Wrong Side of the Road?

Passing to the left is an ancient custom. It meant that your sword hand was on the side of a potential attacker. Napoleon changed it to the right.

In the late 18th century, the shift from left to right that took place in countries such as the United States was based on teamsters’ use of large freight wagons pulled by several pairs of horses. The wagons had no driver’s seat, so a postilion sat on the left rear horse and held his whip in his right hand. Seated on the left, the driver preferred that other wagons pass him on the left so that he could be sure to keep clear of the wheels of oncoming wagons. He did that by driving on the right side of the road.

Sweden used to drive on the left and they had a vote to decide if they should drive on the right. The vote rejected the idea so in a fit of “democracy” their government ignored the wishes of the people and changed the law to drive on the right.
In fact I think it goes back to the more lawless days when a man needed to keep his sword arm free to defend himself so he rode on the left hand side of the road when he met a stranger.

Here’s a list of countries and territories that still drive on the left:

  1. Anguilla
  2. Antigua and Barbuda
  3. Australia
  4. Bahamas
  5. Bangladesh
  6. Barbados
  7. Bermuda
  8. Bhutan
  9. Bophuthatswana
  10. Botswana
  11. British Virgin Islands
  12. Brunei
  13. Cayman Islands
  14. Channel Islands
  15. Ciskei
  16. Cyprus
  17. Dominica
  18. Falkland Islands
  19. Fiji
  20. Grenada
  21. Guyana
  22. Hong Kong
  23. India
  24. Indonesia
  25. Ireland
  26. Jamaica
  27. Japan
  28. Kenya
  29. Lesotho
  30. Macau
  31. Malawi
  32. Malaysia
  33. Malta
  34. Mauritius
  35. Montserrat
  36. Mozambique
  37. Namibia
  38. Nepal
  39. New Zealand
  40. Pakistan
  41. Papua
  42. New Guinea
  43. St. Vincent and Grenadines
  44. Seychelles
  45. Sikkim
  46. Singapore
  47. Solomon Islands
  48. Somalia
  49. South Africa
  50. Sri Lanka
  51. St Kitts and Nevis
  52. St. Helena
  53. St. Lucia
  54. Surinam
  55. Swaziland
  56. Tanzania
  57. Thailand
  58. Tonga
  59. Trinidad and Tobago
  60. Uganda
  61. United Kingdom
  62. US Virgin Islands
  63. Venda
  64. Zambia
  65. Zimbabwe

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  1. avatarExpat Martin says

    Your list of countries that drive on the left were, unsurprisingly, part of the British Empire – that is, except Japan! I heard that the reason for the Japanese driving on the left was that when the Japanese car manufacturing industry was in its infancy, the Brits sold them second-hand machine tools for making cars. These were set up to make cars with the steering wheel on the right – so the Japanese government at the time decided that all cars should drive on the left!

  2. avatarPhil Knight says

    When using a sword, in your other hand you have a shield. That’s the important sde, and the side you’d face the enemy with. Or with a lance, that goes across the horse, emerging on the left. So in unsettled regions you’d want to travel on the right, so you can meet strangers with the shield facing them.

    In more civilised/oppressed/policed regions (i.e. small islands with a sngle government), you’re not going to be fighting strangers, but you mght want to shake hands. So you’d want to be on the left.

    ‘On the other hand’, if you are wearing a sword, it’s very difficult to mount a horse from it’s right-hand side, so you’d get on it from the left. And once facing that way, it makes sense to continue on the left.

    So it’s not clear to me that there’s a simple explanation for this.

  3. avatarLorna says

    I always thought we drove on the left because when a coachman was driving a carriage he would hold the reins in his left hand and his whip in his right hand—the whip hand was therefore on the opposite side to the pedestrians-so they would not get hit by the whip.

  4. avatarMaribell Riley says

    I always thought there were two sorts of countries, the ones that drive on the right side of the road and the ones that drive on the correct side…………..

  5. avatarJeremy Spencer says

    Actually we Brits never changed, and its all to do with the side from which you mount a horse – the nearside or the horse’s left. Mount, ride off. Now, I believe the Yanks and the Canadians ride and mount horses properly, that is on the nearside, and then either need to cross the busy highway or turn around and trot off. Therefore it is in fact the drivers on the right who are inconsistent with earlier forms of transport.

    I do wish more visitors here, particularly from America, would rent or borrow a car so that they may have complete freedom to explore this Island and not be confined or hindered by public transport and coach tours. Any US Land Rover fans planning a trip, get in touch and perhaps we can sort you out with a Landi – they don’t mind which side of the road they use!

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