Society

Driving on ‘wrong side’ of road part of colonial legacy

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A 1938 British Morgan 4-4 Series 1 competes on the 2017 RAC 1000 Mile Trial Rally for pre-War cars organised by Historic Endurance Rallying Organisation. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

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Summary

  • There are 163 countries and territories that drive on the right side of the road, while only 63 drive on the left.

When it comes to the rules of the road, it obviously makes sense for a territory to pick one side to drive on and stick to it across the jurisdiction.

That way you don’t get people pootling happily to the next village, where the rules are different, and promptly crashing into a car coming the other way.

Strangely enough though, driving on one side of the road is not only a matter of common sense; it is enshrined in the Geneva Convention. Not the Geneva Convention you are thinking of, admittedly, but the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949), which requires its signatories to have consistent rules. It is a matter of law, as well as precedent.

Knowing which side of the road to drive on is important for anyone who is planning to drive a vehicle in a foreign country.

There are 163 countries and territories that drive on the right side of the road, while only 63 drive on the left.

Many of the countries that drive on the left, making about 30 percent of the world’s population, are former British colonies including ones in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Oceania.

There also a few other territories with no particular connection to British history, but which drive on the left all the same: Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and Macau.

In the ancient past, almost everybody travelled on the left side of the road because that was the most sensible option for feudal, violent societies.

Since most people are right-handed, swordsmen preferred to keep to the left in order to have their right hand nearer to an opponent and their scabbard further from him.

Moreover, it reduced the chance of the scabbard (worn on the left) hitting other people unintentionally.

Furthermore, a right-handed person finds it easier to mount a horse from the left, and it would be very difficult to do otherwise if wearing a sword. It is safer to mount and dismount towards the side of the road, rather than in the middle of traffic, so if one mounts from the left, the horse should be ridden on the left side of the road.

In the late 1700s, teamsters in France and the United States began hauling farm products using large wagons drawn by several pairs of horses.

These wagons had no driver’s seat; instead, the driver sat on the rear left horse, so he could keep his right arm free to lash the team. Since he was sitting on the left, he naturally wanted everybody to pass on the left so that he could look down and make sure he kept clear of the oncoming wagon’s wheels.

Therefore, he kept to the right side of the road.

In 1709, Danish envoy to Russia under Tsar Peter the Great, noted the widespread custom for traffic in Russia to pass on the right, but it was only in 1752 that Empress Elizabeth (Elizaveta Petrovna) officially issued an edict for traffic to keep to the right. In addition, the French Revolution of 1789 gave great impetus to right-hand travel in Europe.

The fact is, before the revolution, the aristocracy traveled on the left of the road, forcing the peasantry over to the right, but after storming of the Bastille and subsequent events, aristocrats preferred to keep a low profile and joined the peasantry on the right.

An official keep-right rule was introduced in 1794, more or less parallel to Denmark, where driving on the right had been made compulsory since 1793.

Later, Napoleon’s conquests spread the new rightism to the Low Countries (Belgium. Netherlands and Luxembourg), Switzerland, Germany, Poland and many parts of Spain and Italy.

The States that had resisted Napoleon; Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Portugal kept left. This European division, between left and right-hand nations would remain fixed for more than 100 years, until World War I.

Although left-hand driving Sweden ceded Finland to right-hand driving Russia after the Finnish War (1808-1809), Swedish law, including traffic regulations, remained valid in Finland for another 50 years.

In the early years of English colonization of North America, English driving customs were followed, and the colonies drove on the left. After gaining independence from England, however, they were anxious to shed all remaining links with their British colonisers and gradually changed to right-hand drive.

Incidentally, the influence of European immigrants, notably the French, should not be underestimated. The first law requiring drivers to keep right was passed in Pennsylvania in 1792, and similar laws were passed in New York in 1804 and New Jersey in 1813.

The trend in among nations over the years has been towards driving on the right, but Britain has done its best to stave off global homogenization with the hope of retaining some semblance of Pax Britannica.

With the expansion of travel and road building in the 1800s, traffic regulations were made in every country. Left-hand driving was made mandatory in Britain in 1835.

Countries which were part of the British Empire followed suit. This is why to this very day, India, Australasia, and the former British colonies in Africa, including Kenya, go left. An exception to the rule, however, is Egypt, which had been conquered by Napoleon before becoming a British dependency.

Meanwhile, the power of the right kept growing steadily. American cars were designed to be driven on the right by locating the driver’s controls on the left.

With the mass production of reliable cars in the United States, initial exports used the same design, and out of necessity, many countries changed over to the right.

Mr Kiereini is a retired banker and motorcycle enthusiast. [email protected]