Left- and right-hand traffic

Countries by handedness of traffic, c. 2017
  Right-hand traffic
  Left-hand traffic
Change of traffic directions at the Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge

The terms left-hand traffic (LHT) and right-hand traffic (RHT) refer to regulations requiring all bidirectional traffic, unless otherwise directed, to keep to the right or to the left side of the road, respectively. [1] This is so fundamental to traffic flow that it is sometimes referred to as the rule of the road. [2]

One hundred and sixty-three countries and territories use RHT, with the remaining seventy-six countries and territories using LHT. Countries that use LHT account for about a sixth of the world's area and a quarter of its roads. [3] In the early 1900s some countries including Canada, Spain, and Brazil had different rules in different parts of the country. During the 1900s many countries standardised within their jurisdictions, and changed from LHT to RHT, mostly to conform with regional custom. In 1919, 104 of the world's territories were LHT and an equal number were RHT. From 1919 to 1986, 34 of the LHT territories switched to RHT. [4]

Many of the countries with LHT are former British colonies in the Caribbean, Southern Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Japan, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, Mozambique, Suriname, East Timor, and Indonesia are among those LHT countries outside the former British Empire. In Europe, only four countries still drive on the left: the United Kingdom, Ireland, Malta, and Cyprus, all of which are on islands that have no direct road connections with countries driving on the right.

Nearly all countries use one side or the other throughout their entire territory. Most exceptions are due to historical considerations and/or involve islands with no road connection to the main part of a country. China is RHT except the Special Administrative Regions of China of Hong Kong and Macau. The United States is RHT except the United States Virgin Islands. [5] The United Kingdom is LHT, but its overseas territories of Gibraltar and British Indian Ocean Territory are RHT.

According to the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, water traffic is RHT. For aircraft the US Federal Aviation Regulations provide for passing on the right, both in the air and on water. [6]

Light rail vehicles generally operate on the same side as road traffic in a country. Some countries use RHT for automobiles but LHT for trains, often because of the influence of the British on early railway systems.

There is no technical reason to prefer one side over the other. [7] In healthy populations, traffic safety is thought to be the same regardless of handedness, although some researchers have speculated that LHT may be safer for ageing populations [8] since humans are more commonly right-eye dominant than left-eye dominant. [9]

History

Left-hand traffic in Vienna, Austria circa 1930.

Ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Roman troops kept to the left when marching. [10] In 1998, archaeologists found a well-preserved double track leading to a Roman quarry near Swindon, in southern England. The grooves in the road on the left side (viewed facing down the track away from the quarry) were much deeper than those on the right side, suggesting LHT, at least at this location, since carts would exit the quarry heavily loaded, and enter it empty. [11]

The first reference in English law to an order for LHT was in 1756, with regard to London Bridge. [12]

Hong Kong drivers on the left.
Mainland China drives on the right.

Some historians, such as C. Northcote Parkinson, believed that ancient travellers on horseback or on foot generally kept to the left, since most people were right handed. If two men riding on horseback were to start a fight, each would edge toward the left. [10] In the year 1300, Pope Boniface VIII directed pilgrims to keep left. [10]

In the late 1700s, traffic in the United States was RHT based on teamsters' use of large freight wagons pulled by several pairs of horses. The wagons had no driver's seat, so the (typically right-handed) postilion held his whip in his right hand and thus sat on the left rear horse. 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. [13]

In France, traditionally foot traffic had kept right, while carriage traffic kept left. Following the French Revolution, all traffic kept right. [12] Following the Napoleonic Wars, the French imposed RHT on parts of Europe. During the colonial period, RHT was introduced by the French in New France, French West Africa, the Maghreb, French Indochina, the West Indies, French Guiana and the Réunion, among others.

Meanwhile, LHT traffic was introduced by the British in Atlantic Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the East Africa Protectorate, British India, Southern Rhodesia and the Cape Colony (now Zimbabwe and South Africa), British Malaya (now Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore), British Guiana, and British Hong Kong. LHT was also introduced by the Portuguese Empire in Portuguese Macau, Colonial Brazil, East Timor, Portuguese Mozambique, and Angola.

The first keep-right law for driving in the United States was passed in 1792 and applied to the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike. [7] New York formalized RHT in 1804, New Jersey in 1813 and Massachusetts in 1821. [14]

Changing sides

Traffic moves from left to right in Stockholm, Sweden, on 3 September 1967

Europe

Influential in Europe was the 1920 Paris Convention, which advised driving on the right-hand side of the road, in order to harmonise traffic across a continent with many borders. This was despite the fact that left-hand traffic was still widespread: in 1915 for example, LHT was introduced everywhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. [15] However, three years later the Empire was split up into several countries, and they all changed eventually to RHT, notably including when Nazi Germany introduced RHT with almost immediate effect in Czechoslovakia in 1938-39. [16]

Sweden was LHT from about 1734 to 1967, [17] despite having land borders with RHT countries, and approximately 90 percent of cars being left-hand drive (LHD) vehicles. [18] A referendum was held in 1955, with an overwhelming majority voting against a change to RHT. Nevertheless, some years later the government ordered a conversion, which took place at 5 am on Sunday, 3 September 1967. The accident rate dropped sharply after the change, [19] but soon rose back to near its original level. [20] The day was known as Dagen H ("H-Day"), the 'H' being for Högertrafik or right traffic. When Iceland switched the following year, it was known as H-dagurinn, again meaning "H-Day". [21]

In the late 1960s, the UK Department for Transport considered switching to RHT, but declared it unsafe and too costly for such a built-up nation. [22] Road building standards, for motorways in particular, allow asymmetrically designed road junctions, where merge and diverge lanes differ in length. [23]

Asia and the Pacific

China adopted RHT in 1946. Taiwan changed to driving on the right at the same time. Hong Kong and Macau continue to be LHT.

Both North Korea and South Korea switched to RHT in September 1945 after liberation from Japan which was defeated and surrendered by the Allies.

Myanmar switched to RHT in 1970. [24]

Samoa, a former German colony, had been RHT for more than a century. It switched to LHT in 2009, [25] being the first territory in almost 30 years to switch. [26] The move was legislated in 2008 to allow Samoans to use cheaper right hand drive (RHD) vehicles imported from Australia, New Zealand or Japan, and to harmonise with other South Pacific nations. A political party, The People's Party, was formed to try to protest against the change, a protest group which launched a legal challenge, [27] and an estimated 18,000 people attending demonstrations against it. [28] The motor industry was also opposed, as 14,000 of Samoa's 18,000 vehicles are designed for RHT and the government has refused to meet the cost of conversion. [26] After months of preparation, the switch from right to left happened in an atmosphere of national celebration. There were no reported incidents. [3] At 05:50 local time, Monday 7 September, a radio announcement halted traffic, and an announcement at 6:00 ordered traffic to switch to LHT. [25] The change coincided with more restrictive enforcement of speeding and seat-belt laws. [29] That day and the following day were declared public holidays, to reduce traffic. [30] The change included a three-day ban on alcohol sales, while police mounted dozens of checkpoints, warning drivers to drive slowly. [3]

The Philippines was mostly LHT during its Spanish [31] and American colonial periods, [32] [33] the latter despite United States switch to RHT in the 1930s (see above); as well as during the Commonwealth era. [34] During the Japanese occupation the Philippines remained LHT, [35] also because LHT had been required by the Japanese; [36] but during the Battle of Manila the liberating American forces drove their tanks to the right for easier facilitation of movement. RHT was formally finalised by Executive Order No. 34 signed by President Sergio Osmeña on 10 March 1945. [37]

Africa

A number of non-contiguous former British colonies in West Africa originally drove LHT and switched to RHT in the early 1970s to match the surrounding countries. Sierra Leone switched to RHT in 1971, Nigeria in 1972 and Ghana in 1974. Before this period The Gambia, a country entirely contained within RHT Senegal, had officially switched to RHT in 1965.

Rwanda, a former Belgian colony in central Africa, is RHT but is considering switching to LHT, to bring the country in line with other members of the East African Community (EAC). [38] A survey, carried out in 2009, indicated that 54% of Rwandans were in favour of the switch. Reasons cited were the perceived lower costs of RHD vehicles as opposed to LHD versions of the same model, easier maintenance and the political benefit of harmonisation of traffic regulations with other EAC countries. The same survey also indicated that RHD cars are 16 to 49 per cent cheaper than their LHD equivalents. [39] In 2014 an internal report from consultants to the Ministry of Infrastructure recommended a switch to LHT. [40] In 2015, the ban on RHD vehicles was lifted; RHD trucks from neighbouring countries cost $1000 less than LHD models imported from Europe. [41] [42]

Other Languages
العربية: جهة السير
čeština: Strana provozu
Esperanto: Trafikflanko
Frysk: Links ride
한국어: 대면 통행
Bahasa Indonesia: Arah lalu lintas
italiano: Mano da tenere
Nederlands: Links rijden
日本語: 対面交通
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Promet lijevom i desnom stranom
українська: Лівосторонній рух
粵語: 行車方向