Why Does Some Countries Drive On The Left And Others On The Right
The Wrong Side of the Road
Driving on the wrong side of the road can feel like a slap in the face. When you first come to a foreign land, there are a handful of things that take some getting used to, but one little detail is always especially tough: which side of the road do people drive on? It’s so confusing. Sometimes it even feels unsafe! What if those cars are coming right for you? But after years or decades in your new home, eventually, it starts to seem normal. You don’t even notice the cars anymore. You’re just sort of used to it.
But what about in those countries where it is wrong to drive on the wrong side of the road? For example, when driving in Japan and Korea, where you are not supposed to drive on the right, but on the left side of the road? Or in Mexico, where you are not allowed to drive on your right at all? It’s an unusual situation if you’ve come from a different country, and everyone who visits tends to be confused by it.
But this article is not about driving on the right or wrong side of the road. It’s about how certain countries choose which side they will drive on depending on what types of vehicles they are using.
When a country switches to driving on the left, it will naturally become a little different than all other countries. So when we ask if it is “correct” to drive on the right or wrong side of the road in this situation, it depends on which kind of country you come from. This article focuses specifically on how certain countries choose which side they drive in order to avoid unnecessary confusion for tourists and visitors alike. But it also touches upon several other interesting topics, such as why some countries even bother with this distinction at all.
The answer is a little convoluted, but it’s an interesting story.
Countries in the Western hemisphere tend to drive on the right side of the road. This is true in North America, South America, and most of Europe (with the exception of Spain). But this isn’t necessarily the case in Asia. The vast majority of countries in Asia drive on the left side of the road (except for Japan and Korea, which are way out at the bottom). Only not-at-all-obvious exceptions exist: Singapore and Malaysia are both former British colonies, and New Zealand is one of Australia’s northern neighbor states.
In other words, if you’re from the Western hemisphere and you drive on the right side of the road, just keep doing that. If you’re from Asia and you drive on the left side of the road, don’t worry about it. That’s all there is really to it.
But there is a whole lot more to it than that. It turns out that many countries in Asia use two entirely different systems for determining whether or not it’s okay to drive on the left or right side of the road based on which type of vehicle they are driving.
Let’s start with, well, you know. Using the left side of the road for cars.
Countries in Asia that use the left side of the road for cars include Japan, China (including Hong Kong and Macau), South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia (formerly British colonies), Thailand (formerly Siam) and Cambodia.
Why would any country choose to drive on the left side of the road instead of on the right? I mean, can’t you get to the right a lot quicker if you just drive on the right instead of waiting for everyone else? Well, in a way, yes. But driving on the right is not as intuitive for countries that are used to driving on the left. If everyone comes from a country where they drive on the left, it’s going to be confusing if they all of a sudden have to start driving on the right.
But here in this corner of Asia, there’s another factor in play: all these countries were former European colonies. And Europeans drive on the right side of the road (except for Spain). So driving on the right was more of a cultural tradition, rather than an actual distinction based on right or left. And when those European countries they were colonies of gained their independence, they chose to keep driving on the right side of the road.
But by the time that happened, it was too late for them to switch over. So all these countries continued to drive on the left side (except for Japan and Korea, which are way out at the bottom). There’s also another factor in play in some parts of Southeast Asia: It’s just easier to drive on the left side if you’re from Europe or North America. You just can’t see over so far if you’re driving on the right.
But how do countries decide which side they drive on? Let’s check some of the most common answers.
1. The government decides
This is the most obvious answer, but it’s not really an answer at all. Because it turns out that even countries that choose to drive on the left side of the road don’t always do so for this reason (or any others, for that matter). The following countries drive on both sides of the road depending on which type of vehicle they are using: Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, French Polynesia (Réunion), Paraguay, and Peru.
2. The rule is enforced only in certain areas or cities
Some countries only enforce this rule in certain areas or cities. And some countries enforce it in very limited areas. These are New Zealand, Australia (except for Queensland), England and Wales, Egypt, Japan and Thailand.
3. The Pope Said So
This answer really only applies to England and Wales, but it’s interesting. The answer begins with this: “The Pope said that driving on the left side of the road was the correct Christian way to drive.” And then it goes on to say that since most countries drive on the left, this is a matter of “common practice.” Now, many people don’t think that making a rule based on what Jesus did is really a good idea. But remember: Australia and New Zealand are officially Commonwealth members of the British Empire, even though they have their own governments now. And England and Wales used to be part of Great Britain, which was then part of the British Empire until they became independent in 1950. So this reason for the rule makes sense, if you think about it in those terms.
4. They’re just copying other countries
This is probably the most common reason, and one that’s used by countries that don’t really have a good reason for why they drive on one side or another. In these cases, whichever country surrounds them has decided to go with one rule or another, so they’ve decided to follow suit. Here are some examples: Australia and New Zealand (the British Empire), Italy (France), Indonesia (The Netherlands), North Korea (the USSR) and Japan (China).
5. Napoleon made them do it
This is another common explanation that you’ll hear more often than not. The thinking behind this is that Napoleon forced the European countries to change their road rules by conquering them in the early 1800s, and those countries started following France’s lead on things like road rules. If this rule were really enforced because of Napoleon, then Italy would be a good example here since they were never actually under French rule (no one was). In this case, Italy was left-side driving because they adopted all of the French laws.
6. Hitler made them do it
In the same manner, this is similar to Napoleon’s explanation. Hitler supposedly forced the European countries that were conquered by his army (Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia) to switch so that they would all be following the same rules.
In conclusion, there are many explanations for why the roads and rules are the way they are. Some ideas are backed by reason, some aren’t so much. Most of it is left up to your opinions and experiences, but the ones above can certainly help you to get an idea of why road rules have changed over the years.