Rules of the road
Rules of the road are the general practices and procedures followed by people on roads, especially those driving cars or on bicycles or other vehicles. They govern interactions with other vehicles, and with pedestrians. The basic traffic rules are defined by an international treaty under the authority of the United Nations, the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. Not all countries are signatory to the convention and, even among those that are, local variations in practice may be found. Driving safely is usually easier if a driver can adapt to both written and unwritten local rules of the road.
Left or right
see also road
The first rule to learn for a particular country is which side to drive on. This is so fundamental that it is sometimes known simply as the rule of the road.
In countries where traffic drives on the right:
Traffic flow and road design in both cases are each other's mirror image.
With regard to the driver's seat: Most early motor cars had the drivers seat in the middle. Later some manufacturers chose to have the driver's seat nearest the centre of the road in order to look out for oncoming traffic whilst others chose to put the seat on the other side so that the drivers could avoid damaging their vehicles on walls, hedges, roadside gutters and other obstacles. Eventually the former idea prevailed.
Countries that drive on the left
Approximately one quarter to one third of the world's countries drive on the left-hand side of the road. Most of the countries that drive on the left are former colonies of the British Empire. There are exceptions: Japan, Indonesia, Macau and Thailand drive on the left, although they were never British colonies; and Canada and the United States drive on the right, although they were.
The first legal reference in Britain to an order for traffic to remain on the left occurred in 1756 with regard to London Bridge. The General Highways Act of 1773, contained a recommendation that horse traffic remain on the left and this was enshrined in the Highways Bill in 1835.
The British author C. Northcote Parkinson has presented a "proof" that the British way of driving (on the left side of the road) is the natural one.
List of Left-driving countries
Lumping regions where feasible, and omitting only some countries that are small in both area and population:
Most countries have changed in order to ease border crossings. For example, former British colonies in West Africa, such as Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Ghana changed over, as they all shared borders with former French colonies, which drove on the right. There are still many instances of having to change sides at border crossings, such as between Uganda and Sudan, Thailand and Laos or Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Hong Kong and Macau, traffic continues to drive on the left, unlike in mainland China, despite the fact that they are now Special Administrative Regions of the People's Republic of China. However, Taiwan, formerly under Japanese rule, changed to driving on the right in 1946 after Republic of China assumed administration as did Korea under US and Soviet occupation.
However, many countries changed the rule of the road as a result of foreign occupation, notably during the Napoleonic Wars. More recently there are examples such as Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary under German rule in the 1930s and '40s. The Channel Islands also changed to driving on the right under German occupation, but changed back after liberation in 1945, as did the Falkland Islands under Argentine occupation in 1982. East Timor changed to driving on the left under Indonesian rule in 1976, and continues the practice as an independent state.
In Italy the practice of driving on the right first began in the late 1890s, but it was not until the mid 1920s that it became standard throughout the country. The practice was first introduced in cities under socialist control, such as Rome and Naples, with conservative-controlled cities like Milan and Turin continuing to drive on the left. Cars remained right-hand drive (RHD) until the mid 1920s, with Lancia not producing left-hand drive (LHD) cars until as late as the early 1960s.
Until the 1920s, the rule of the road in Canada varied from province to province, with British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, driving on the left, and the other provinces and territories driving on the right. Between 1920 and 1923, these provinces changed over to driving on the right. Newfoundland was not part of Canada until 1949, and drove on the left until 1947.
Sweden had left-hand traffic (Vänstertrafik in Swedish) from approximately 1736. It continued to do so well into the 20th century despite the fact that virtually all the cars on the road in Sweden were actually LHD. Also, Sweden's neighbours, Norway, Finland and Denmark already drove on the right, leading to confusion at border crossings. In 1955 a referendum was held on the issue, resulting in an 82.9%-to-15.5% vote against a change to driving on the right.
Nevertheless, in 1963 the Swedish government passed legislation ordering the switch to right-hand traffic. The changeover took place on a Sunday morning at 5am on September 3, 1967, which was known in Swedish as Dagen H (H-Day), the 'H' being for Högertrafik or right-hand traffic.
Since Swedish cars were LHD, experts had suggested that changing to driving on the right would reduce accidents, because drivers would have a better view of the road ahead. Indeed, fatal car-to-car and car-to-pedestrian accidents dropped sharply as a result.
Since colonial times, American drivers have always driven on the right. There is a common story that this may be due to the construction of Conestoga wagons, which had a high driver's seat on the left side.
Today, American cars are always LHD, and American drivers always drive on the right and overtake on the left, with the exception of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In many Caribbean islands where traffic drives on the left, such as the British Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands, most if not all passenger cars are LHD, being imported from the United States. Only government cars are RHD.
In Japan, foreign brands of car sold locally have traditionally been LHD, which is regarded as a status symbol. This even applies to British brands, in spite of the fact that authentic British cars have the steering wheel on the right. However, some US manufacturers have made RHD models for the Japanese market, though with limited success, and as European brands become more popular, the preference is increasingly for RHD models.
As a former British colony, Burma (now called Myanmar) drove on the left until 1970, when the military regime of Ne Win decreed that traffic would drive on the right. It is alleged that this was because Ne Win had been advised by his soothsayer, who had said 'move to the right', although this was in fact a reference to economic policy. In spite of the change, most passenger cars in the country today are RHD, being used vehicles imported from Japan. However, government limousines, imported from China, are LHD.
Although the British territory of Gibraltar changed to driving on the right in 1929, in order to avoid accidents involving vehicles from Spain, many public buses until recently were RHD, with a special door allowing passengers to enter on the right hand side. However, most passenger cars are LHD, as in Spain, with the exception of used cars brought in from the UK and Japan and some vehicles used by the British forces.
There is some evidence of cart tracks from a quarry in Blunsdon Ridge near Swindon which suggests that Romans drove on the left, and until the 18th century, this was probably the most common choice in Europe. However driving on the right was more common in France; this was imposed by Napoleon Bonaparte on the countries he occupied, and thus it became the practice in their colonies.
In many countries, the rules of the road are codified, setting out the legal requirements which if broken may lead to prosecution.
In the United Kingdom, the rules are set out in the Highway Code, including some obligations, but also a lot of other advice on how to drive sensibly and safely. For this second set of advice, it states Although failure to comply with the other rules of the Code will not, in itself, cause a person to be prosecuted, The Highway Code may be used in evidence in any court proceedings under Traffic Acts to establish liability.
In the United States, traffic laws are regulated by the states. The federal government's Department of Transportation has some control over road signage and vehicle safety, and limited control over the Interstate highway system (which is actually built and maintained by the states).
However, all state vehicle or traffic laws have common elements. These include the mandatory automobile insurance requirement, right-of-way rules, the basic speed rule (go only as fast as is safe under the circumstances up to the maximum posted speed limit), and the requirement that one must stop after an accident. The most common state-by-state variation is in maximum speed limits; for example, rural states like Montana have speed limits as high as 75 miles per hour, but Oregon has a maximum speed limit of 55 mph.
This list should be consulted regarding any country that is small in both area and population. Year of changeover is listed where applicable.
Countries and areas driving on the left
Countries and areas driving on the right