Monday, 7 December 2015


Some countries still drive on the wrong side of the road

By distance, 90% of the worlds roads are designed for driving on the right and only 10% for left-side driving. In population terms, 65% of the world’s people drive on the right and only 35% drive on the left.

Most of the left-side driving countries are isolated island nations or were former British colonies. Their isolation allowed them to preserve their colonial heritage without going through the perceived pain of conforming with established driving practices in the rest of the world. Their remoteness was their ticket to a head-in-the-sand denial. But the world has changed and continues to change. People travel to experience new lands, do business, immigrate, and visit family and friends like never before. More and more, people who travel, and drive on an unfamiliar side of the road, die at the side of the road.

It is long established international law that all air and sea traffic conforms to the keep right rule. No exceptions. But there is no UN organisation to keep road traffic all on the same side of the road. That is a grand scale UN failure. So how did this happen?

In the days when horse-drawn vehicles were the norm, buggies traditionally had the driver’s seat in a central position near the front, until someone decided that the seat should be positioned to one side to facilitate passage on narrow byways without hitting obstructions on the side or ending up in a ditch. The other side evidently didn’t matter because it would only be used on rare occasions by a fellow traveller (or highwayman) going the other way.

But as traffic increased, local authorities made laws to regulate the flow of traffic. Mostly the laws were for a city or town and were rarely made for whole regions until Russia passed a law in 1709 decreeing that all traffic should drive on the right. The first English law for keeping left was passed in 1722 and only applied to traffic on London Bridge. During most of the 1700’s America was too busy learning to use firearms to worry about which side of the road to drive on. The first American keep right rule was enacted in 1792 and applied only to the Philadelphia-Lancaster Turnpike in Pennsylvania. This must have been one of the rare occasions for Russia and America to agree on something, but between them and with help from Europe they set the trend that has continued into the 21st century, with the British Empire being the main dissenter. For a time, Britannia ruled the waves, but never the roads.

If you think that this left/right business is confusing, think about this. There are still some places where countries, and even parts of towns, are divided between keeping right and keeping left, often with disastrous results. However, by the time the first motor-cars appeared the trend was overwhelmingly in favour of keeping right and sitting behind a steering wheel on the left, even though most countries continue to register vehicles with both left and right hand drive. The position of the driver in the vehicle is less of a problem than the position on the road.

Many countries changed from driving on the left to driving on the right during the 20th century. A smaller number, usually because of changing international borders, have changed from right to left. Below is a list of 29 countries that changed from left to right side driving in the 20th century with their year of change: -

Afghanistan 1960, Argentina 1945, Austria (completed*) 1941, Belize 1961, Brazil 1928, Burma (Myanmar) 1970, Canada (completed) 1920’s, China 1946, Croatia 1920’s, Czechoslovakia 1941, Gambia 1965, Gibraltar 1929, Hungary 1941, Iceland 1968, Italy (completed) 1920’s, Korea (North & South) 1945, Netherlands 1917, Nigeria 1972, Paraguay 1945, Philippines 1945, Poland (completed) 1928, Portugal 1928, Serbia 1918, Sierra Leone 1971, Spain 1924, Sweden 1967, Taiwan 1946, Uruguay 1945, and Yemen 1977. * Indicates countries where not all localities changed at the same time.

In New Zealand, where driving on the left is the law, a debate is raging about tourists who cause accidents by inadvertently crossing onto the wrong side of the road. Interestingly, it is the tourists who are always seen as being wrong, which, technically, they are. But the real problem is New Zealand’s outdated law and a refusal to consider falling into line with international trends.

Of the 3 million tourists that visit New Zealand every year, their origins are probably reflected in the 65% to 35% statistics shown above and many hire cars and camper vans and drive themselves on unfamiliar roads. They make mistakes. Having personally driven approximately 7 million kilometres on the left and almost 200,000 kilometres on the right, I know how easy it is to lapse into old habits. I did it twice with a truck, and that was after four weeks of intensive training and testing.

Highway America - Peter Blakeborough
New Zealanders are calling for driver testing before letting foreigners drive on New Zealand roads, but that won’t work for several reasons. Firstly, it didn’t work for me and I’m a life-long professional driver. A test will not guarantee that a driver will not revert to old habits. Secondly, New Zealand is party to a reciprocal agreement to accept drivers from a large group of countries. Reneging on the agreement could have a boomerang effect when New Zealanders go travelling. And we don’t have any statistics on the number of New Zealanders killed while driving hire cars on the right. The third reason testing won’t work would be that the logistics of it would impose an unreasonable burden on rental car companies for no useful gain. Some companies would be forced out of business due to the downturn and the overall effect on tourism would be negative.

New Zealand and some other former colonies are like a soldier marching out of step with his platoon, while insisting that everyone else is out of step. It’s time for those countries to come into the real world of motoring and prepare their roads, signage and drivers for the change-over. There will be serious opposition from ill-informed people and from people who will think that it is another conspiracy, or a plot by government to increase taxes, or other hair-brained reasons. Opposition to change is part of human nature. Education will overcome the opposition and prepare all for a new and safer way to drive in the global village.

The cost to the government for the education, training, signage, and road markings will be similar per capita to the cost of going metric in New Zealand a few years ago. Structural changes to most roads, bridges and interchanges would not be needed. In most cases signs would be moved across the road and turned the other way. A few would need alteration or replacement.

A prankster once suggested that changing over to the other side of the road is easy. You get all the trucks and buses to change over this year, and the survivors change over next year. But joking aside, changing over will not be the major exercise that most people would expect. Other countries that have changed experienced a sharp decrease in accidents from the moment of change and lasting sometimes for years afterwards. People will drive with extra care and a new knowledge of the rules of the road. Motoring costs will plummet with savings on insurance, fuel and repairs. Ideally, and to placate the nervous, speed limits would be lowered for several weeks.

No country that switched from left to right ever switched back again because it didn’t work, and that is the guarantee that it will work.
Meanwhile, drive safely.