By Jeremy Rochow
Published: Wednesday, May 1, 2019
Have you ever wondered why Australian motorists, along with a third of the world’s population, drive on the left side of the road?
We did, so we’ve done the research into the reasons different countries drive on different sides of the road. Here’s why.
Why do Australians drive on the left?
To find out why Australian motorists drive on the left we have to take a long step back in time to when the ancient Romans were conquering Europe.
According to the History Channel, Romans drove their carts and chariots on the left for safety reasons.
One theory is that the majority of people were right handed, so driving or riding on the left would allow them to wield a weapon with their dominant hand if they crossed paths with the enemy.
It was for the same reasons that British knights, who brandished lances, stuck to the left side of the road.
Keeping traffic to the left finally became law in the United Kingdom in 1773.
British colonies established outside the UK at the time and in the years that followed – including Australia, India and numerous southern African nations – naturally followed suit.
Driving on the right in Australia could result in a hefty fine.
The Australian road rules state that a driver on a road (except a multi-lane road) must drive as near as practicable to the far left side of the road.
If they fail to do so, they could receive a $305 fine plus a $60 Victims of Crime Levy and 2 demerit points.
Why do the majority of countries drive on the right?
The French revolution may have played a part in the rest of Europe switching to the right side of the road. Prior to the revolution, the French drove on the left but peasants who couldn’t afford a horse or carriage would walk along the right.
During the French revolution, aristocrats wanted to keep a low profile and joined the peasants on the right. It stuck, and in 1794 the keep-right law was introduced.
Later, Napoleon’s conquests spread the new law to a number of European countries, including Germany, Spain, Italy and Poland. Many of these countries had colonies across the world which in turn inherited their road customs
English driving customs spread to America, however after gaining independence in 1776 and forming the United States of America, the country wanted to cast off as many remaining links with their British colonial past and gradually began driving on the right.
Have some countries switched sides recently?
Despite the United States swapping to the right side of the road, its closest neighbour Canada remained split on which direction it should drive in for a number of years.
Drivers in the French territory of Quebec drove on the right, while English-held regions like British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland remained on the left.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces fell in line with the rest of Canada and the United States.
Newfoundland held out until 1947, finally switching sides two years before the province officially became part of Canada.
To match its neighbours, Sweden decided to swap from the left to right in 1967. Months of planning took place, with traffic lights reversed, road signs changed, and lines repainted, before the whole country swapped directions on the morning of Sunday 3 September.
Samoa – not to be confused with American Samoa – was the most recent country to change sides.
Bucking the trend of countries switching to the right, the country’s then-Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Lupesoliai Malielegaoi, decided Samoa should drive on the left, to make it easier to import cars from countries such as Japan, New Zealand and Australia.
At 6am on 8 September, 2009 sirens sounded and drivers were told the move from the right to the left side of the road.
According to the BBC, the change went relatively smoothly without any major crashes, but still attracted some controversy.
Protest groups, worried the change would spark mayhem, blocked roads for several hours and bus drivers protested that their doors would open in the middle of the road.