Driving on the Left or the Right?

In the world, 75 countries drive on the left and 165 on the right. A high number of countries that were in the former British Empire make up those 75, with many exceptions like the United States, Canada and Belize, to name a few. All Spanish speaking countries in the world drive on the right. Please correct me if I’m wrong. : )

Only two countries in all the continental Americas do not drive on the right; Guyana and Suriname. That is a fairly uniform standard, however it was not always that way. Several countries in Central and South America changed sides of the road over the last century. In Central America, Belize now drives on the right, because of the Panamerican Highway. Panama also switched sides. In South America, Argentina switched to the right, as did Brazil, Chile, Panama, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

In the Caribbean, 16 islands follow the British custom: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago. So many islands! [Correction: I missed three, Monserrat, British Virgin Islands, and most surprisingly the US Virgin Islands! Please leave a comment if you know the story for that last one. Thanks to our neighbor Dave for providing this information. -R]

What created this left/right separation for driving? Historians track it back to soldiers marching: for example, the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians. Since more people are right-handed than left, soldiers would prefer to stand on the left and fight with their weapon in their right hand. That continued for troops on horseback. The 13 Colonies that began the United States drove their horses on the left. It may have been partially rebellion against the Crown that made them change sides, but large carts where the driver sat upon the left horse and controlled the horses with the right hand are credited with the change. The driver wanted to avoid colliding wheels with a vehicle going the opposite direction, so traffic switched to the right hand side for safety and a better view.

What about Spanish-speaking countries? Napoleon had a great influence over Latin America for a short time in the 1800s, when he conquered Spain. He was left-handed and preferred traffic on the right-hand side to favor his sword hand. My theory is, this may be why many Spanish-speaking countries favor the right-side for traffic.

All right, you say, then why doesn’t Canada drive on the left with their close connection to England? They used to until the 1920s. They changed in order to match the United States. That would allow them to have a less expensive source of automobiles (not imported from across the pond) with steering wheels on the correct side (the left!) nearby (Detroit).

Thanks to our car-loving kid for inspiring this topic one morning this week! As we drove to school they asked, “Why do we drive on the right-hand side?”

Do people drive on the left- or right-side of the road where you live? Have you ever driven on the other side? How was it? Tell us your thoughts.

Gracias for reading Fake Flamenco. ¡Olé! –Rebecca

If_you're_not_already,_drive_on_the_left!_-_geograph.org.uk_-_595997
Photo: Chris Downer / If you’re not already, drive on the left! sign in England Note: Spanish “izquiera” should be “izquierda” for left.

 

 

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31 thoughts on “Driving on the Left or the Right?

  1. Please thank your child for me 🙂 I didn’t know that people used to drive on the left side, here in Canada, and now that I know why we switched to the right side, I’ll make sure to share the knowledge around! 😉 Interesting, where a simple, innocent question might take you, right?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A fascinating topic, Rebecca. As you’ve noted in your post, in my native land Guyana, vehicles drive on the left side in keeping with the former British colonial practice. When we moved to Brazil, it was quite challenging to get used to traffic traveling on the right side.

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  3. Thinking about the warriors on horseback . . Do I want my opponent to approach from my left side, where I am holding my shield, or the right, where I am holding my sword? (don’t know)

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  4. I was raised in Canada where I learned to drive and now live in Spain. So I have only driven on the right side of the road. I would never even try to drive on the left. It would be a disaster for me. Hubby was raised in the UK so he can drive on both sides comfortably.

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  5. We drive on the right here, and I honestly don’t think I’d be able to handle switching to the left if I traveled somewhere where that was the law. Truthfully, I almost never drive when I travel anyway; I’m not a huge fan of driving, and when I’m in an unfamiliar place it makes me very anxious. I usually ask my traveling companion to drive, or use public transportation, taxis, etc.

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    1. I feel the same way; I’d rather not switch and I prefer taking public transportation while traveling. I feel I get to know the country better when I move around in the same way as the locals. Thanks, Rebecca

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  6. Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks for bringing up this interesting topic. It’s something I’ve experienced and out a lot of thought into.

    As an American who has lived and traveled in many countries where driving on the left side is the norm, I’d suggest that travelers who are unsure about their ability to switch should err on the side of caution and not drive. For me, the freedom of taking public transportation and letting someone else do the driving while I relax and gaze out at the view is quite a treat.

    Americans in particular should know that most cars for hire in places such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand often come with manual shifting gears and a lack of power steering. As you noted, in countries where driving on the left side is the rule, car steering wheels are on the right side of the car. Adjusting to shifting with my left hand was far more difficult than merely remembering to stay in the left lane. All this becomes especially confusing when one arrives at a busy roundabout where the rules for yielding right-of-way can be very confusing.

    During the years I lived and worked in Thailand, I only rented a car one time in order to access an area of rural villages and I swore I would never do it again. Driving on the left side while dodging every possible type of motorized vehicle–often driven by child no older than 9–plus stray dogs and chickens was terrifying. In Thailand, it wasn’t at all unusual to run across an accident scene where a farang (term for foreigner) had crashed on a motorbike and lost their life. Differing rules of the road and alcohol were often responsible for such accidents.

    Quite honestly, I don’t think Americans should be allowed to drive in the UK and other countries where the conditions are different. It simply puts everyone on the road at risk.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think our viewpoint in the US is “must have car.” That’s not true in the countries I’ve visited in Latin America and Europe. There is a peace in taking public transportation and letting someone who knows the roads drive. In Chile and Mexico we’ve hired day drivers (Taxis) to take us on excursions and we learn so much cultural information from them it makes it doubly rewarding. BTW, I’ve edited one sentence Henry to make it a little less graphic. Thanks for sharing your experiences! -Rebecca

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      1. Sorry if I was too graphic, but I saw far too many instances like that when I was in Thailand. It made me want to educate people about the dangers of renting a motorbike in such a foreign context. Thanks!

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      2. You’re very kind to apologize. I’m working to keep my website rated G, as an experienced blogger recommended. ; ) I can imagine it must be upsetting to come upon scenes like you witnessed in Thailand. Good to caution travelers with a word to the wise. Gracias! Rebecca

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  7. This is an interesting point and something i had been wondering about. Of course, here in Spain one drives on the right, as well as in all of continental Europe…but when I was in the military, I was sent to some islands in the Caribbean where traffic was on the left and I remember thinking, no way would I drive here! Actually I did try and it is not so hard to do if you concentrate and focus…lovely post and thank you to your child for bringing it to your attention.
    Cheers!

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      1. My family moved to Florida when I was 11 years old reference my father’s position and job. I served in the US Army, but it was in the US Coast Guard that I was deployed to Antigua on a training mission for 31 days. In my native Spain I did not do military service, I came back here a little too old for that…

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      2. It is a very small island, beaches on all sides. Although I was Coast Guard, because I had infantry experience I was sent inland to train police troops so I did not see much but I will look and post some pics. Since I was an officer I was given a room at one of the resorts on the water. It was a few years ago, but I enjoyed the experience.

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  8. we drive on the right in Ireland. when I went to the states I couldn’t get used to sitting on the right hand side as the passenger side, I found it really weird, it felt so odd to be in the drivers seat. hahaha!

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  9. I went to Australia and New Zealand years ago and learned how to drive a stick shift out there. I was gone for seven months. Getting used to cars driving on the left side (as a driver and as a pedestrian) was relatively easy. Coming home to Canada and readjusting back to “normal” was harder. Even years later, I’d catch myself looking right, then left instead of left, then right to cross the road! It took a long time to stop second guessing myself!

    Interesting topics!

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      1. I’m a lefty. A few years after getting home I bought a standard/stick shift for myself. That too was a weird adjustment! I don’t know though if being a lefty made a difference to the weirdness!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Must have been much easier to use a stick shift on the left side for you. I wonder if, other than for mule drivers, it’s easier to drive on the left – more natural. Although, I’d be afraid to switch now I’ve been driving a while.

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