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Driving - Left or Right

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165267.  Thu Apr 12, 2007 9:03 am Reply with quote

As discussed last Monday:

Driving – Left or Right

About a quarter of the world drives on the left, and the countries that do are mostly old British colonies.
Japan also drive on the left (see below).
This strange quirk perplexes the rest of the world; however, there is a perfectly good reason.
Up to the late 1700's, everybody travelled on the left side of the road because it's the sensible option for feudal, violent societies of mostly right-handed people.
Jousting knights with their lances under their right arm naturally passed on each other's right, and if you passed a stranger on the road you walked on the left to ensure that your protective sword arm was between yourself and him.
Revolutionary France, however, overturned this practice as part of its sweeping social rethink. A change was carried out all over continental Europe by Napoleon.The reason it changed under Napoleon was because he was left handed his armies had to march on the right so he could keep his sword arm between him and any opponent.
From then on, any part of the world which was at some time part of the British Empire was thus left hand and any part colonised by the French was right hand.
In America, the French colonised the southern states (Louisiana for instance) and the Canadian east coast (Quebec). The Dutch colonised New York (or New Amsterdam). The Spanish and Portugese colonised the southern Americas. So The British were a minority in shaping the 'traffic'.
The drive-on-the-right policy was adopted by the USA, which was anxious to cast off all remaining links with its British colonial past
Once America drove on the right, left-side driving was ultimately doomed. If you wanted a good reliable vehicle, you bought American, for a period they only manufactured right-hand-drive cars.
From then on many countries changed out of necessity.
Today, the EC would like Britain to fall into line with the rest of Europe, but this is no longer possible. It would cost billions of pounds to change everything round.
The last European country to convert to driving on the right was Sweden in 1967. While everyone was getting used to the new system, they paid more attention and took more care, resulting in a reduction of the number of road accident casualties.

Why Does Japan Drive On The Left
It is considered certain that at least among Samurai warriors, left-side passage had been observed.
Left-side passage not only allowed right-handed Samurai to draw their swords more easily in case of emergency but also prevented two mutually approaching samurai from getting into a duel when the sheaths of their swords hit each other, which happened quite often in days of yore. Samurai ruled the Japanese society during Edo period (1603-1867). And left-side passage suited their peacetime lifestyle. So left-side passage could be considerably prevalent in Japan back then.
But this does not necessarily follow that non-Samurai people--farmers, craftsmen, merchants--strictly kept left-hand traffic. These people did not carry swords in the first place. Furthermore, it had been a traditional custom in Japan to put up nameplates on the right posts of the gates when you see houses from the outside. It had also been a traditional custom here to show names of the bridges in Chinese characters (therefore more politely) on the right posts of the bridges when one faced the bridge while those in Japanese syllabics on the left posts. Two Europeans ( Engelbert Kaempfer and Carl Peter Thunberg) wrote that people were keeping to the left. But it is possible that non-Samurai people were keeping to the right only when they came up against top brasses like Samurai or foreigners. People in Japan could be moving every which way with the exception of Samurai warriors.
In early 18th century, Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716), a German naturalist, wrote in his book called "Edo travel account" that left-side passage was stipulated on Japanese highways (Edo is an old name of Tokyo). He stayed in Japan from 1690 to 1692. He wrote "according to the Japanese custom, people who travel to the capital (including himself) have to keep to the left while people who travel from the capital have to keep to the right. This custom took root and became a rule."
In late 18th century, Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1822), a Swedish botanist, wrote in his book called "Edo travel accompaniment" that left-side passage was observed by all travellers on Japanese highways and added that a clear-cut traffic rule like this had to be set up in Europe as well. He stayed in Japan from 1775 to 1776.
The most decisive factor in the Japanese history that brought about our present left-side driving came in 1868, when our isolationist feudalism was replaced by Western-style democracy (though it was nominal democracy back then). We realised our backwardness and started absorbing Western civilization like fury. The railway system was one of the most prominent intake from the West at that time. Three countries approached the then Japanese government in terms of the introduction of the railway system: USA, France and UK. At first France and USA prevailed but in the end UK swayed away Japanese government decision by offering a state-run railway plan which best agreed with Japanese officials' idea. In 1872 the first Japanese railway ran with English technical aid. It was, of course, left-side driving (at stations, I mean, the main line was single-track). This is proven by the photos or paintings drawn those days. A massive network of railways had been built ever since, all of which were left-side running. If American or French railway had been built, instead of English, we might have found right-side traffic in today's Japan.
But the left-hand traffic discussed above is still limited to railways. The biggest avenue that effectively promoted left-side traffic on the Japanese road system is considered to be horse railways, and its successor: electric tram cars. As you may have known, horse railways are stage coaches that ran on railways on streets. They first ran in Japan in 1882 with double-track railway. Since they were a railway after a fashion, they were left-side passage in Japan. They developed in a big way as street transportation, especially in major cities. In 1903 horse railways were started to be replaced by electric tram cars. But since they used the same railways as the horse railways, left-side driving continued. And they are considered to encourage other transportation to keep to the left down the road.
In the 19th century the Japanese laws and orders on the passage of roads seemed still confused. Stage Coach Order issued by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police in 1881 said mutually approaching horses and vehicles had to avoid each other by shifting to the left. But an order issued by the same Tokyo police in 1885 stated that general horses and vehicles had to avoid to the left but when they met army troops they had to avoid to the right. Japanese armies were keeping right on roads, as their ideas did, until 1924. Osaka government, which is the second largest city in Japan, issued an order in 1872 that horses and vehicles had to keep to the right of roads. It was not until early 20th century that left-side passage effectively took root among ordinary Japanese people. In 1900 Tokyoites arguably saw the first automobile run in Japan. An order issued in 1902 by the Tokyo police said for the first time that pedestrians had to keep to the left side of roads. 1907 saw the first Japanese killed by an automobile accident. A newspaper article dated January 1st of 1906 reads "we have recently seen the development of such transportation as trains, cars and bicycles. But it does not necessary accompany a corresponding street condition and we have seen increased traffic accidents. In light of the swollen danger on roads, Tokyo Metropolitan Police are going to enforce that same old left-side traffic on pedestrians in addition to tighter regulation on trains."
In a book called 'Origin of Meiji (a Japanese era referring to 1868 to 1912) things,' it was 1924 when left-side driving was clearly written in a law.


165273.  Thu Apr 12, 2007 9:19 am Reply with quote

more here from Molly last year

and here on the outer boards

I remember doing some stuff on this in the early days too - though I think it may have been for the BBC quiz.

IIRC, this:

The reason it changed under Napoleon was because he was left handed his armies had to march on the right so he could keep his sword arm between him and any opponent.

Is a little simplistic, and the reasons were a little more than Old Boney's handedness.

165346.  Thu Apr 12, 2007 11:04 am Reply with quote

I did this one as a Mythchaser in Fortean Times a few years ago; this is what came back ...

Myanmar drove on the left until 1970, when a fortune teller's advice prompted Ne Win to order a switch to the right. However, “even today the vast majority of Myanmar’s vehicles are right-hand drive.” (S: a reader's letter, quoting Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar 2000).

An editor’s note in FT, quoting ‘The rule of the road’ by Peter Kincaid (Greenwood Press, 1986) suggests that ancient Rome “probably” drove on the left, going by ancient ruts and evidence from a coin. Kincaid found no evidence for the belief that a papal decree in 1300 legislated left driving; he says that in fact in 1300 Pope Boniface ordered pilgrims on the Bridge of St Angelo to keep to the right.

The same source says there is no evidence that “left-hand driving was ever common in France” and that it is “likely” that France has always driven on the right. Napoleon required countries he conquered to adopt French practice.

Same source says that in 1996 four billion people drove on the right, and two billion drove on the left.

165354.  Thu Apr 12, 2007 11:19 am Reply with quote

Link to Sweden's Dagen H.

165372.  Thu Apr 12, 2007 11:48 am Reply with quote

There's a part of the USA where one drives on the left.

It's the US Virgin Islands. The US bought those islands from Denmark in 1916, and many sources (including, ahem, me on the outer boards post 77110) claim that the driving on the left was a hangover from the days of Danish ownership.

It isn't though, because the Danes have always driven on the right - so I guess it's to be consistent with the British Caribbean. Just to be even more confusing, all the cars in the USVI have left hand drive since they are imported from the mainland USA, so the accident rate is high.

165532.  Fri Apr 13, 2007 3:28 am Reply with quote

There's one street in the UK where traffic drives on the right: Savoy Court

(wiki link -

There are other streets where you can drive a car and have traffic going in the opposite direction pass you on the left, but these all have barriers between the two lanes, so are not really conventional roads. Savoy Court it the only conventional road where traffic drives on the right.

Wiki says:

This is said to date from the days when a cab driver would reach his arm out of the driver's door window to open the passenger's door, without having to get out of the cab himself.

Though surely somewhere like the Savoy would have a doorman who could open the cab door for the discerning guest.

165538.  Fri Apr 13, 2007 3:35 am Reply with quote

There are various ways of dealing with the borders between countries which drive on opposite sides of the road. Perhaps one of the most beautiful is the road from Macau (where they drive on the left) to mainland China (where they drive on the right).

You can see it on Google Maps

165629.  Fri Apr 13, 2007 6:39 am Reply with quote

Excellent. Somewhat over-engineered (they could have just had one lane dipping and passing under the other), but pretty nonetheless.

165667.  Fri Apr 13, 2007 7:56 am Reply with quote

I think they must have intended it to look phallic so that it could be used in comedy shows. PICTURE RESEARCHERS! Over 'ere!

165668.  Fri Apr 13, 2007 7:58 am Reply with quote

Gray wrote:
they could have just had one lane dipping and passing under the other

Where's your sense of the aesthetic?!

The other link, between Hong Kong and mainland China looks like it'd just make you very dizzy!

165674.  Fri Apr 13, 2007 8:06 am Reply with quote

Even if we can't use the google image, we could easily make a drawing of that and ask what it's for. The only link I can think of at the moment is emblems / swastikas, and that's not a link to write home about.

165677.  Fri Apr 13, 2007 8:09 am Reply with quote

link to erections

165678.  Fri Apr 13, 2007 8:12 am Reply with quote

Of course. 'Engineering', I think you mean.

165766.  Fri Apr 13, 2007 10:29 am Reply with quote

That could be the question (re: dr. Bob): in which London street driving on the left is forbidden? A: Savoy Court.


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