PART 1: THE FUN STUFF
So you like Right-Hand-Drive Cars?
Here’s more trivia than you ever needed!
If you’re reading this, it’s probably not news to you that in countries where people drive on the right-hand side of the road, the cars are built so that the driver sits on the left hand side of the car, and vice versa for countries that drive on the opposite side.
LEFT-HAND DRIVING IN RIGHT-HAND-DRIVE CARS IS LESS POPULAR
Approximately 35% of the world’s population still drives on the left. We say “still” because, historically, more countries have been making the switch from left-lane to right-lane over the past couple of centuries. The origins of the preferred orientation are unique to each country’s history, but primarily concerned with politics rather than culture. Most of the countries that drive on the left today are old British colonies. Check out this world map that lists which side of the road each country currently drives on!
LEFT-HAND DRIVING WAS ONCE THE NORM!
Once upon a time, in the ancient feudal societies of Europe, driving – or rather riding – on the left hand side of the road was the standard. Since most people are right-handed, knights and swordsmen from this violent era already had dextral practices for handling their weapons and noble steeds. As a matter of safety, they considered it a more logical option to travel on the left for several reasons, including:
WHEN DID THE RIGHT LANE BECOME THE "RIGHT" LANE?
Before truck drivers existed, 18 th century “teamsters” drove teams of draft animals (horses, oxen, or mules) to haul farm products in big wagons across parts of Europe and the United States. These simple carts had no driver’s seat, so the teamster usually sat on the left rear horse, which freed their right arm to lash the rest of the animals into gear. Since they were sitting on the left, they kept to the right side of the road in order to improve their visibility for oncoming traffic and safely steer clear of any other oncoming wagon’s wheels.
Right-hand-drive vehicle drivers driving in a left-hand driving country today can relate to this, since it’s considerably more difficult to pass cars on a single lane highway when you don’t have the left-sided visibility to see oncoming traffic.
WHEN DID THE CHOICE OF LANE BECOME A MATTER OF THE LAW?
For a long time, the choice of driving on the left or right varied according to local customs because there was barely any horse and wagon traffic to be concerned over setting an official standard, even as recently as the 1700s. When road building became commonplace to meet cross-country travel needs in the 1800s, traffic regulations were suddenly a safety concern. Paris introduced an official keep-right rule in 1794, around the same time Denmark had made driving on the right mandatory in 1793. Britain’s left-hand driving policy-making measures began in 1773 with the General Highway Act but were only passed as an enforceable traffic law in 1835.
THE LEGACY OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE (AND COLONIES)
In the early years of Britain’s colonization of North America, English driving customs were considered the default, so all colonies drove on the left. Most of the countries that still drive on the left side of the road today are former British colonies or their neighbors. Japan was never part of the British Empire, but the year they built their first railway system (1872) with technical aid from the English was the same year their unwritten left-hand traffic rule from the Edo period (1603-1868) was considered more or less official. All trains and trams were designed to drive on the left hand side, thanks in part to British influence, and Japan eventually made their left-side driving laws unambiguous in 1924.
THE LEGACY OF THE FRENCH EMPIRE (AND COLONIES)
Before the Revolution, the side of the road where people travelled was laden with class connotations. French aristocracy exclusively travelled on the left, while peasants were forced to stick to the right. After the revolt that led to the storming of Bastille, these high-class citizens suddenly had a huge impetus to keep a low profile, so they began joining peasants on their right-hand lane travels. Once this became the norm, the French spread the practice to their colonial domains, subjecting them to their traffic rules. Canadian French territories from Quebec to Louisiana drove on the right despite being surrounded by other British colonies in North America, where English driving customs were followed until after the American Revolution.
NAPOLEON AND HITLER DROVE ON THE RIGHT
When Napoleon set out to take over the world, he spread his country’s right-hand driving preference with him, forcing Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Poland and several parts of Spain and Italy to switch lanes. The sovereign states that resisted him, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Britain, and Portugal, continued on their left-lane path. When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, he followed Napoleon’s footsteps and ordered the country to make the switch to right-hand driving overnight. Czechoslovakia and Hungary were some of the last states forced to switch at (literal) gunpoint, after Germany invaded them in 1939 and 1944.
THE LEGACY OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION (AND ECONOMY)
The influence of European immigrants, particularly the French, combined with the post-American Revolution fervor of shedding all links with their British colonial past, led to the gradual standardization of right-hand driving in the United States. Beginning with the first official laws passed in Pennsylvania in 1792, New York in 1804, and New Jersey in 1813. This tendency gained momentum after the advent of American motorcars in the 1920s, at which point Canada’s English territories (British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces) made the switch from left to right in order to conform with the rest of (French) Canada and their neighbor to the south. The only exception was Newfoundland, which drove on the left until 1947, and switched only after officially joining Canada in 1949.
HENRY FORD DROVE ON THE LEFT
Yet another major influence was carmaker Henry Ford, who mass produced his Model T with a left-positioned steering wheel, which necessitated driving on the right side of the road. All subsequent American-produced cars that were based on the Model T facilitated driving on the right by locating the driver’s controls on the left side of the vehicle. As mass production of reliable and more affordable cars became commonplace, many countries looking to import these models changed their rules of the road out of necessity.
BUT GUESS WHAT, RIGHT-HAND DRIVE AMERICAN CARS CAME FIRST !
That’s right! Before the 1908 Model T made Henry Ford became a household name, almost every other motorcar being manufactured in the United States was a right-hand drive vehicle. As mass production ramped up and competition boomed, each automaker looked for new ways to innovate on their modern horseless carriages. Cadillac invented the first lever-operate headlights, the Marmon Motor Company was the forerunner for using rear-view mirrors at the 1911 Indianapolis 500, and the Ford Motor Company introduced left-hand steering.
WAIT, I THOUGHT AMERICANS WERE ALREADY DRIVING ON THE RIGHT LANE ?
Yep, the right-hand driving laws were passed State by State starting in 1792 all the way up to the Civil War, when it became official throughout the country. However, drivers of buggies and wagons would still opt to steer from the right side of their vehicles. This was because:
● It allowed them greater visibility of the edge of the road so they could avoid falling into a ditch, and...
● It also allowed bench-seated drivers of single-line horse drawn carriages to use their right hand for their whip. The complete opposite tactic of the left-leaning teamsters.
HOW QUICKLY WE FORGET
In the 226 years since the laws mandating vehicles to drive on the right were first introduced in the United States, right-hand steering was commonly used for approximately 123 of those years. By the mid-1910s, other automakers followed in Ford’s footsteps and modeled their car designs with controls on the left. Only a few models, such as the Pierce Arrow Line, held off on converting to LHD until the early 1920s.
WHAT'S IT LIKE OPERATING A RHD CAR IN A LHD WORLD?
Modern Western drivers who operate RHD vehicles enjoy them for different reasons. Some aspects of their common Pros and Cons lists would resonate with horse-drawn carriage drivers of yore. These include:
● Parallel parking is considerably easier, since the curb is very visible.
● It’s safer to exit the vehicle on the side of the road than next to traffic.
● Better perception of corners when turning; i.e. easy to look out for ditches.
● Automated parking garage ticket dispensers, tollbooths, and drive-thru windows pose a contortionism challenge.
● Left turns at intersections are more hazardous; (best to wait out the stoplight).
● Passing slow traffic on a two-lane highway is also dangerous; (best to wait for a curve or incline that allows long-distance visibility of oncoming traffic).
WHY DID FORD CHANGE THE STEERING POSITION ?
Henry Ford wasn’t shaking up the RHD status quo just to make waves – he genuinely believed that left-hand steering would be conducive to safer driving. The primary reason was to make it easier on drivers to gauge their distance from oncoming traffic so they could avoid collision accidents. Several other motives for the design choice are outlined in a Ford catalogue from 1908, which explains:
The control is located on the left side, the logical place, for the following reasons: Travelling along the right side of the road the steering wheel on the right side of the car made it necessary to get out on the street side and walk around the car. This is awkward and especially inconvenient if there is a lady to be considered. The control on the left allows you to step out of the car on to the curbing without having had to turn the car around. In the matter of steering with the control on the right, the driver is farthest away from the vehicle he is passing, going in opposite direction; with it on the left side he is able to see even the wheels of the other car and easily avoids danger.
BUT WHICH NAME CAME FIRST, THE LHD OR THE RHD CAR?
If we’re talking strictly about the VERY FIRST automobile in existence the answer is: neither! German engineer and inventor Karl Benz (of Mercedes Benz fame) designed and patented the very first “motorized wagon” in 1886. It had three bicycle-inspired wheels and used a gasoline-powered two-stoke piston engine that became the basis of the modern automotive engines we still use today. His patent also included other essential car parts including the battery, throttle system, clutch, gearshift, water radiator, and spark plug. But what’s fascinating about this very first motorcar was how the steering controls were placed dead center. The Benz Patent Motor Car Model No. 1 had a rudder or “tiller” sticking out in the middle of the two-seater bench, so it didn’t matter which side of the vehicle the driver chose to sit on, nor which side of the road they chose to drive on.
FEWER AND FEWER "LEFTIES" REMAINED AFTER DECOLONIZATION
With decolonization in the 1960s, switching to right-hand lane driving became a trending global phenomenon. Once a big country switched, its neighbors were pressured to follow in its footsteps. Ghana, for example, was the last remaining countries in west Africa that stuck to the left after Nigeria switched in 1972, so it decided to follow suit just two years later.
WAS ANYONE SWITCHING TO THE LEFT?
While most countries have been busy adapting their roads for the left-to-right switch, only three cases of regions making the switch from right-to left have been traced. These include East Timor in 1975, Okinawa in 1978, and Samoa in 2009. In Samoa’s case, they were seeking to match the traffic customs of the nearest influential neighbouring countries, Australia and New Zealand. In Okinawa’s case, the only reason they were driving on the right (unlike the rest of Japan) was due to the United States’ post-war occupation, which lasted until 1972.
DID ANYONE CHANGE THEIR MINDS ABOUT SWITCHING ?
Over time, more and more countries have chosen to swap sides in their traffic laws. Pakistan briefly considered following this trend in the 1960s but ultimately decided against it for a very unique reason. It was a common practice for drivers of camel trains to sleep during the night-time portion of their journeys, since their camels were trained to continue following the trail without supervision. However, these camels were already used to driving on the left side of the road – and as it turns out, it’s very difficult to teach old camels new tricks.
THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDE
Just as JDM right-hand-drive vehicles inspire admiration among car enthusiasts in the West, the opposite is true in the Land of the Rising Sun. Japanese people sometimes import left-hand-drive models of American-made cars purely for the prestige. Since high-end vehicles made by Western automakers were originally designed as LHD, driving a Mercedes or BMW with the steering wheel on the left is considered more “authentic”. It’s also a way to show off class and wealth, since the importing the LHD versions of these models is considerably more expensive.
Speaking of Japan... It’s time to get down to business so you can start learning how to import your dream RHD car! Let’s switch gears and move on to Part II.