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Why do we drive on the left in the UK?

Around three quarters of the world drives on the right, yet here in the UK, and in many former British colonies around the world, we still drive on the left. So why is this, and how does a country decide which side to drive on?

Taking sides: Why do most of the world drive on the right?

History has it that travellers traditionally moved along the left hand side of the road so that their sword hand was free in case of an attack by oncoming enemies. Picture jousting knights passing each other on the right. It is said that the French broke with this tradition because Napoleon was left handed, and so wanted to have his sword in his left hand by travelling on the right hand side of the road.

Other theories have it that the Pope decreed that pilgrims travelled on the left, and revolutionary France wanted to defy the Pope by changing. Similarly, it is said that the Americans wanted to rid themselves of any British influence after independence, and so moved from left to right.

Perhaps the most famous, and most whimsical, switch was made by Burma in 1970, which decided which side of the road to drive on based on the dreams of their leader Ne Win.

Switching sides: how did they manage changing sides?

Driving on the opposite, or ‘wrong’ side of the road obviously causes confusion, especially when neighbouring countries favour different sides. Drivers crossing from Laos to Thailand, Afghanistan to Pakistan and Southern Sudan into Uganda for example, have to switch sides at the border. This is done in many ingenious ways, including special switch bridges, such as that between Laos and Thailand, roundabouts and complex lane layouts.

Occasionally, a country will decide to switch the side of the road they drive on based on political or economic reasons, rather than at the whim of their leader. This occurred in Samoa in 2009, which switched to driving on the left because they wanted to trade more with Australia and New Zealand than with their previous trade partners America. The change took place over two days, with a public holiday declared to ease the transition. Sweden also changed,from driving on the left to driving on the right, in 1967.

Could the UK change?

It would be very convenient for the UK to change to driving on the right, in order to fall in line with the rest of Europe and America, but it is simply not feasible. A study done in 1969, following Sweden’s change, estimated the cost of changing the driving side at £264m (around £3.4bn in today’s money), but the cost would be much more now with so many new roads. Changing also raises problems with vehicles, such as buses opening their doors on the wrong side of the road, and with road layouts, as on-ramp acceleration lanes tend to be longer than off-ramp deceleration lanes and these would swap if we changed sides.

With so much politics, religion, empire building and dreaming dictators creating our road systems, it is unlikely that they will ever standardise across the world. And perhaps, as proudly quirky Brits, we enjoy being that little bit different to almost everyone else.

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