While around two thirds of the world’s nations follow right hand traffic (RHT) by driving on the right side of the road, many of the world’s most popular tourist destinations do in fact drive on the left side, following the rules of left-hand traffic (LHT). In fact, there are 54 destinations that drive on the left, equaling around a third of the global population.
The majority of left-hand traffic nations are former British colonies, such as the Caribbean Nations, Australia, India and South Africa, who continue to keep up the age-old British tradition for left side driving. Many are also island nations without borders into right-driving nations, so there has not been a need to change driving rules to allow for easier passage from one country to the next. Here are a handful of the best-known and most popular left-hand traffic following nations.
The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom has a long history for driving on the left, one that is traced all the way back to Roman times. Given that most people were right-handed, the concept of riding a horse on the left side became common practice in order for the right hand to be ready for attack in case of an unexpected ambush. In 1300 CE Pope Boniface VIII sanctioned an official ‘rule of the road’ in order to keep all travelers on the left side of the road.
Even when wagons became the primary means of transport, the left side of the road remained commonplace in the UK, allowing drivers seated at the back and to the left to keep their right whipping hand free. During the 18th century, a law was passed ruling all traffic in London to remain on the left, a rule that was brought into the Highway Act of 1835, leading it to spread throughout Britain, where it remains firmly in place.
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There are several arguments for why Japan adopted left hand driving. Some Japanese people believe its origin can be traced back to the samurai, who wore their swords on the left, and would draw it out with their right hand if they met an attacker in one of the country’s narrow, winding streets. This meant warriors riding on horseback would be free to pull out their sword at the first sign of attack. During the 19th century, Japan forged a strong relationship with the UK. They assisted Japan in establishing an industrialized transport system, including a complex railway network based on left-hand traffic. This cemented the British tradition for left-hand traffic within Japanese society.
As a British colony until 1901, Australia adopted left-hand traffic simply because they were once under British rule. Early road and rail systems were built around a left-hand traffic system which has remained in place to this day. The tradition is just one example of the close and ongoing relationship that exists between the UK and Australia, despite the fact that Australia is fully independent today.
Much like Australia, South Africa’s former role as part of the British Empire means many of its earliest travel systems were established under British leadership, meaning the UK tradition for left-hand traffic became commonplace. While other areas of Africa have adopted right-hand traffic, it is worth noting South Africa’s separate left-side oriented traffic laws, which were written into the National Road Traffic Act of 1996.
Like Australia and South Africa, New Zealand adopted the ‘keep to the left’ rule during British colonial times. During the late 19th and early 20th century New Zealand made gradual steps towards independence, and became ratified in 1947. However, despite the dramatic political shifts, today New Zealand keeps left-hand traffic in place.
Another former British colony, India continues with left-hand traffic as a result of its history under British rule. While India passed the Indian Independence Act in 1947, left-hand traffic has remained as a small signifier of the nation’s long and complicated history.