Right- and left-hand traffic
The terms right-hand traffic (RHT) and left-hand traffic (LHT) refer to regulations requiring all bidirectional traffic, unless otherwise directed, to keep to the right or to the left side of the road, respectively. This is so fundamental to traffic flow that it is sometimes referred to as the rule of the road.
About two thirds of the world's population (163 countries and territories) are RHT, with the remaining (76 countries and territories) LHT. Countries that use LHT account for about a sixth of the world's area and a quarter of its roads. In the early 1900s some countries like Canada, Spain, and Brazil, had different rules in different parts of the country. During the 1900s many countries standardised within their jurisdictions, and changed from LHT to RHT, mostly to conform with regional custom. In 1919, 104 of the world's territories were LHT, and an equal number were RHT. From 1919 to 1986, 34 of the LHT territories switched sides.
Most regions with concentrations of LHT are where there were once many British colonies such as the Caribbean, southern Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. In Europe, only four countries still drive on the left: the United Kingdom, Ireland, Malta, and Cyprus, all of which are islands. Japan is one of the few countries outside the former British Empire (along with Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, Mozambique, Suriname, East Timor and Indonesia) to drive on the left.
Nearly all countries use one side or the other throughout the entire country. Exceptions are due to historical considerations and involve islands not attached the main country. China is RHT except the Special Administrative Regions of China of Hong Kong and Macau. The United States is RHT except the United States Virgin Islands. The United Kingdom is LHT, but its overseas territories of Gibraltar and British Indian Ocean Territory are RHT.
In RHT jurisdictions, vehicles are configured with left hand drive (LHD), with the driver sitting on the left side. In LHT jurisdictions, the reverse is true. The driver's side, the side closest to the centre of the road, is sometimes called the offside, while the passenger side, the side closest to the side of the road, is sometimes called the nearside.
Ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Roman troops kept to the left when marching. Which side of the road the Ancient Romans drove on is disputed. Roman roads in Turkey suggest Romans used the right-hand side of the road. In 1998, archaeologists found a well-preserved double track leading to a Roman quarry near Swindon. The grooves in the road on the left side (viewed facing down the track away from the quarry) were much deeper than those on the right side, suggesting LHT, at least at this location, since carts would exit the quarry heavily loaded, and enter it empty.
Some historians, such as C. Northcote Parkinson, believed that ancient travellers on horseback or on foot generally kept to the left, since most people were right handed. If two men riding on horseback were to start a fight, each would edge toward the left. In the year 1300, Pope Boniface VIII directed pilgrims to keep left.
In the late 1700s, traffic in the United States was RHT based on teamsters' use of large freight wagons pulled by several pairs of horses. The wagons had no driver's seat, so a postilion sat on the left rear horse and held his whip in his right hand. Seated on the left, the driver preferred that other wagons pass him on the left so that he could be sure to keep clear of the wheels of oncoming wagons.
In France, traditionally foot traffic had kept right, while carriage traffic kept left. Following the French Revolution, all traffic kept right. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the French imposed RHT on parts of Europe. During the colonial period, RHT was introduced by the French in New France, French West Africa, the Maghreb, French Indochina, the West Indies, French Guiana and the Réunion, among others.
Meanwhile, LHT traffic was introduced by the British in Atlantic Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the East Africa Protectorate, the British India, Southern Rhodesia and the Cape Colony (now Zimbabwe and South Africa), British Guiana, and British Hong Kong. LHT was also introduced by the Portuguese Empire in Portuguese Macau, Colonial Brazil, East Timor, Portuguese Mozambique, and Angola.
In 1915 left-hand traffic was introduced everywhere in Austria-Hungary.
The first keep-right law in the United States was passed in 1792 and applied to the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike. New York formalised right-hand traffic in 1804, New Jersey in 1813 and Massachusetts in 1821.
In the 1900s some countries changed, mostly from LHT to RHT to harmonise with their neighbours. In 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Empire was split up into several countries, and they all changed eventually to RHT, as in the switch to right-hand traffic in Czechoslovakia.
China adopted RHT in 1946. Taiwan changed to driving on the right at the same time. Hong Kong and Macau continue to be LHT.
During the planning of the Pan American Highway from Alaska to Cape Horn in the 1930s, it was decided that the road should use right-hand driving on its entire length. Many countries changed to RHT. Guyana and Suriname are the only two remaining countries in the mainland Americas that drive on the left. Much of the Caribbean is LHT.
Czechoslovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, and used the left side for driving. The switch to right-hand traffic in Czechoslovakia took place under German occupation: Bohemia: 17 March 1939, Prague: 26 March.
Since 1967, six countries have switched sides. Samoa from RHT to LHT in 2009, and the rest (Sweden 1967, Iceland 1968, Burma 1970, and Ghana 1974) in the opposite direction.
After the defeat of Japan during World War II, Okinawa was ruled by the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands and compelled to drive on the right. Okinawa was returned to Japanese control in 1972 and changed back to driving on the left six years later, at 06:00 on 30 July 1978. The conversion operation was known as 730 (Nana-San-Maru, which means Nana(7)-San(3)-Maru(0)). Okinawa is one of few places to have changed from right- to left-hand traffic in the late 20th century.
Rwanda, a former Belgian colony in central Africa, drives on the right. The government is considering changing to driving on the left, to bring the country in line with other members of the East African Community (EAC).
In early August 2009 several African newspapers reported that, following the results of a public survey, Rwanda was considering switching to driving on the left in order to bring the country in line with other members of the East African Community (EAC). The survey, carried out by the Ministry of Infrastructure in 2009, indicated that 54% of Rwandans were in favour of the switch, compared to just 32% who were opposed to it. Reasons cited were the perceived lower costs of RHD vehicles as opposed to LHD versions of the same model, easier maintenance and the political benefit of harmonisation of traffic regulations with other EAC countries. The same survey also indicated that right-hand drive cars are 16 to 49 per cent cheaper than their left-hand drive equivalents. Because of this, investment in passenger service vehicles and goods transport is expected to increase should the switch go ahead, due to the high costs of sourcing suitable LHD vehicles and the relative abundance of alternatives from elsewhere in the EAC. Furthermore, in November 2009, Rwanda's application to join the Commonwealth of Nations was approved, another group which is largely dominated by LHT countries.
In September 2010, Infrastructure Minister Vincent Karega said that new traffic guidelines had been submitted to the Prime Minister's office, paving the way for the Cabinet to formally approve the switch. At the same time, if the switch does go ahead, it will necessitate repealing the 2005 Presidential Decree banning RHD cars. According to Karenga, the private sector has been a keen supporter of the switch, citing the harmonisation of EAC regulations and the cheaper cost of RHD cars. As of December 2011, the Rwandan government reported that it had received the Ministry of Infrastructure's 2009 survey and was commissioning a comprehensive study of options available.
In September 2014, the Rwandan government announced its intention to lift the import ban on RHD lorries weighing over 30 tonnes. At the same time, an internal report from consultants to the Ministry of Infrastructure recommended a switch to LHT. In 2015, the ban on right hand drive vehicles was lifted, allowing Rwandans to import the same vehicles as those sold in neighbouring countries, including trucks; right hand drive trucks available in those countries cost $1000 less than left hand drive models imported from Europe.
A former German colony, Samoa had been RHT for more than a century. It switched to LHT in 2009, being the first territory in almost 40 years to switch. The move was legislated in 2008 to allow Samoans to use cheaper RHD vehicles imported from Australia, New Zealand, or Japan, and to harmonise with other South Pacific nations.
A political party, The People's Party, was formed to try to protest the change, a protest group which launched a legal challenge, and an estimated 18,000 people attending demonstrations against it. The motor industry was also opposed as 14,000 of Samoa's 18,000 vehicles are designed for right-hand traffic and the government has refused to meet the cost of conversion.
After months of preparation, the switch from right to left happened in an atmosphere of national celebration. There were no reported incidents. At 05:50 local time, Monday 07 September, a radio announcement halted traffic, and an announcement at 6:00 ordered traffic to switch to LHT. The change coincided with more restrictive enforcement of speeding and seat-belt laws. That day and the following day were be public holidays, to reduce traffic. The change included a three-day ban on alcohol sales, while police mounted dozens of checkpoints, warning drivers to drive slowly.
Sweden has right-hand traffic now, but had legal left-hand traffic (vänstertrafik in Swedish) from approximately 1734, when it changed back from a short period of right-hand traffic starting in 1718. With or without legal rule, traditionally the left side was used for carriages. Finland, under Swedish rule until 1809, also drove on the left, and continued to do so as a Russian Grand Duchy until 1858.
This continued well into the 20th century, even though virtually all the cars on the road in Sweden were LHD. One argument for this was that it was necessary to keep an eye on the edge of the road, something that was important on the narrow roads in use at the time. However, Sweden's neighbours Norway and Finland 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 Riksdag passed legislation ordering the switch to right-hand traffic. The conversion took place at 5am on Sunday, 3 September 1967, which was known in Swedish as Dagen H (H-Day), the 'H' being for Högertrafik or right traffic.
Since Swedish cars were LHD, experts had suggested that changing to driving on the right would be safer, because drivers would have a better view of the road ahead. The accident rate dropped sharply after the change, but soon rose back to near its original level. The speed limits were temporarily lowered.
Trains have left-hand traffic, as a change to right traffic is not considered cost-effective. Trains in Malmö and further southwest keep to the right, as in neighbouring Denmark; there is a flyover-type crossover north of Malmö.
Worldwide distribution by country
Of United Nations recognised countries, RHT is used in 129, and LHT is used in 63. A country and its territories and dependencies is counted once.
Changing sides at borders
Although many LHT jurisdictions are on islands, there are cases where vehicles may be driven from LHT across a border into a RHT area. The Vienna Convention on Road Traffic regulates the use of foreign registered vehicles in the 72 countries that are parties to the 1968 agreement.
Some countries have borders where drivers must switch from LHT to RHT and vice versa. LHT Thailand has four RHT neighbors. Most of its borders use a simple traffic light to do the switch, but there are also interchanges which enable the switch while keeping up a continuous flow of traffic. Brazil funded construction of Takutu River Bridge, from Bonfim to Lethem, Guyana, the only remaining land border in Americas where traffic change sides, since its opening in 2009.
There are four road border crossing points between Hong Kong and China. The largest and busiest is Lok Ma Chau Control Point, which features two separate changeover systems on the mainland side, the Huanggang Port. In 2006, the daily average number of vehicle trips recorded at Lok Ma Chau was 31,100. The next largest is Man Kam To, where there is no changeover system and the border roads on the mainland side Wenjindu intersect as one-way streets with a main road.
In the south-west of Guyana, near Lethem, work was finally completed on 26 April 2009 on the Takutu River Bridge across the Takutu River into neighbouring Brazil, which drives on the right. The changeover system is on the Guyana side, with one lane passing under the other on the bridge's access road.
Research in 1969 by J. J. Leeming showed that countries driving on the left have a lower collision rate than countries driving on the right, although he acknowledged that the sample of left-hand rule countries he had to work with was small, and he was very careful not to claim that his results proved that the differences were due to the rule of the road. It has been suggested that this is partly because humans are more commonly right-eye dominant than left-eye dominant. In left-hand traffic, the predominantly better-performing right eye is used to monitor oncoming traffic and the driver's wing mirror (side mirror). In right-hand traffic, oncoming traffic and the driver's wing mirror are handled by the predominantly weaker left eye. In addition, it has been argued that left-sided driving is safer for elderly people given the likelihood of their having visual attention deficits on the left side and the need at intersections to watch out for vehicles approaching on the nearside lane. Furthermore, in an RHD car with manual transmission, the driver has the right hand, which for most people is dominant, on the steering wheel at all times and uses the left hand to change gears and operate most other controls.
Cyclists, motorcyclists and horse riders typically mount from the left-hand side, with motorcycle side stands almost always located on the left. This places them on the kerb when driving on the left.
Road vehicle configurations
Driver seating position
In the very early days of motoring, the steering wheel could be positioned on either side of the car. In modern times the driver sits on the offside, which affords a better view of oncoming traffic. So LHD cars are used for RHT and vice versa. In most countries this is required by law. However, there are countries where this is not the case, usually caused by proximity to countries driving on the other side, for example the Russian Far East's proximity to Japan. Also in the United States they use RHT but postal service vehicles are RHD imported from Japan. In some Caribbean islands like the Bahamas, US Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands have LHT with mostly LHD vehicles imported from the United States.
In specialised cases the driver will sit on the nearside, or kerbside, such as street sweepers and delivery vehicles. Visitors from outside a country are usually permitted to drive temporarily, for example British visitors to France. The newest Unimog models can be changed from left-hand drive to right-hand drive in the field to permit operators to work on the more convenient side of the truck. In Spain trucks were RHD until the 1950s, to enable drivers to watch for unstable road edges. In Canada, right-hand drive vehicles are heavily used by Canada Post employees who deliver mail to rural areas. RSMCs (rural and suburban mail carriers) are provided RHD vehicles by Canada Post or are acquired privately through dealers across Canada. These RHD vehicles are often imported from other countries such as Japan where they are suitable for designated RHD mail routes in Canada. Mail delivery imports became popular in the early 2000s when more modern vehicles like the Mitsubishi Pajero or Honda CRV became eligible for import into Canada. Such imports are fitted with daytime running lights and DOT tyres in order to make them HTA-compliant and safe for Canadian roads.
Buses typically have passenger doors only on the kerbside, depending on the driving side of the country. This configuration is adequate for most city networks where passengers board and alight from a kerb. Some BRT systems operate with buses that have doors only (or mainly) on the off-kerb side, intended to operate at stations or bus stops in the centre of an avenue with dedicated lanes, such as TransMilenio (LHD) in Bogotá, Colombia and Rea Vaya (RHD), in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Metrobus in Istanbul, Turkey runs on the left even though regular road traffic runs on the right and buses have doors on the right to access centre platforms.
Buses with only kerbside or only off-kerb side doors are limited in their ability to pick up or drop off passengers from both sides of the bus. In some places, such as in some Brazilian cities, buses have doors on both sides, which allows them to operate at bus stops placed in the middle of avenues.
Some touring coaches, which may need to operate in countries which drive on different sides, are fitted with a door on each side of the bus. This configuration is used on coaches which operate in the UK and continental Europe and on some Hong Kong-China cross-border coaches.
On older-style buses with passenger access at the rear, it is possible to retrofit passenger access doors to match the opposite kerbside, on buses with relatively low floor height; the many traditional British double-deckers sold on for tourist use in the US and some areas in Canada are examples.
When Sweden drove on the left prior to September 1967, city buses were among the very few vehicles in that country which conformed to the normal opposite-steering wheel rule, being RHD while most of the rest of the road traffic was LHD. The same was true in Iceland. Buses were rebuilt or replaced during the transition period in Sweden, with governmental financial support, a large part of the cost for the change of side.
Conversely in Italy, where driving is on the right, some buses were built with RHD until the mid-1960s. These buses had a layout with passenger doors directly behind the driver. Some cities (e.g. Turin and Padua) continued to operate RHD buses until approximately 1980.
Headlamps and other lighting equipment
Low beam headlamps for use in RHT throw most of their light forward-rightward; LHT does the opposite. In Europe, headlamps approved for use on one side of the road must be adaptable to produce adequate illumination with controlled glare for temporarily driving on the other side of the road by affixing masking strips or prismatic lenses to a designated part of the lens or by moving all or part of the headlamp optic so all or part of the beam is shifted or the asymmetrical portion is occluded. Some varieties of the projector-type headlamp can be fully adjusted to produce a proper LH- or RH-traffic beam by shifting a lever or other movable element in or on the lamp assembly.
Within the European Union, vehicles must be equipped with one or two red rear fog lamps. A single rear fog lamp may be located on the vehicle centreline, or on the driver's side of the vehicle.
|Unless overtaking stay on the||left||right|
|On roundabouts traffic rotates||clockwise||counterclockwise|
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|Traffic must cross oncoming traffic when turning||right||left|
|Most traffic signs are on the||left||right|
|Pedestrians crossing a two-way road look first for traffic from their||right||left|
|Dual carriageway ramps are on the||left||right|
|After stopping at a red light it may be legal to turn||left||right|
Trams and streetcars generally follow the same rules as other road traffic in the country concerned, both on road and on reserved sections, with the passenger doors on the kerbside, or on both sides.
Most passenger trains in the world keep to the left. 95% of the world's rail passenger-kilometres are carried on railways with LHT, due to the popularity of rail transport in China and India.
In many countries where automobiles are RHT, trains are LHT, often because of British influences. Many nations maintained left-handed rail traffic after switching their automobile traffic from left to right. China switched to RHT in 1946 but kept its left-handed railways. China has an extensive passenger rail network and more high-speed rail tracks than the rest of the world combined.
About 50% of the world's freight rail tonnage is transported over right-handed railway networks, and almost 60% of the world's freight rail tonne-kilometres are transported over right-handed railway networks.
For the driver, visibility is good from both sides of the driving cab so the choice on which side to site the driver less important. For example, the French SNCF Class BB 7200 is designed for using the left-hand track and therefore uses LHD. When the design was modified for use in the Netherlands as NS Class 1600, the driving cab was not completely redesigned, keeping the driver on the left despite the fact that trains use the right-hand track in the Netherlands.
Generally, the left/right principle in a country is followed mostly on double track. On single track, when trains meet, the train that shall not stop often uses the straight path in the turnout, which can be left or right.
In France, road vehicles keep to the right, but the first railway lines were built by the British, so keep to the left, even on the modern Train a grande vitesse (TGV).
Light rail vehicles and metro systems tend to have the same handedness as automobile traffic, although the Buenos Aires Metro, Madrid Metro, Rome Metro and the Stockholm Metro are LHT for historic reasons. Metro systems do per definition not share track or road with other traffic and can have its own principle.
For terminus stations, trains have to go back in opposite direction, meaning that LHT become RHT or opposite and that trains have to cross each others path to get to the correct side. For that reason, sometimes bridges for changing side are located near terminus stations.
Multiple track usage by country
Water vessels and aircraft
Generally, all water traffic keeps to the right, under the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. There are exceptions to RHT when passing through bridges, normally indicated at each archway.
The rule of the sea is that vessels crossing give way to the starboard, while if they are head on each must navigate to starboard so as to pass port-to-port.
For aircraft and vessels, the US Federal Aviation Regulations provide for passing on the right, both in the air and on water.
This section gives details about the road traffic, including trams and other light rail systems which include street running. Trains which use segregated tracks usually have separate rules and are included in the Trains section.
The United Kingdom has left-hand traffic, and its imperial influence has identified LHT with Britain and the Commonwealth throughout most of the world. The left-hand traffic rule first became compulsory in 1722, to combat increasing traffic congestion on the narrow London Bridge. The Lord Mayor of the City of London ordered that bridge traffic should keep to the left.
As a result of European Union legislation ensuring the free movement of goods, British consumers can buy RHT cars from car dealers in other EU countries.
Although the United Kingdom is separated from Continental Europe by the English Channel, the level of cross-Channel traffic is very high; the Channel Tunnel alone carries 3.5 million vehicles per year between the UK and France. Most vehicles crossing the Channel, whether via the Channel Tunnel or on ferries, are UK-registered RHD vehicles. Large numbers of British drivers take their RHD cars to Continental Europe for holidays and day trips.
In cities with heavy tourism, LHD coaches travelling to the UK from elsewhere can cause problems as their passengers get off the vehicle into the path of traffic, rather than on a pavement. Some fleet operators who regularly tour from Continental Europe to the UK use coaches with doors on both sides. Conversely, some double-decker buses exported to LHD countries for tourist purposes are converted to have their doors on the other side.
For a variety of reasons, Continental European LHD heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) have become common on the UK's roads, particularly on major routes radiating from ports and the Channel Tunnel. This affects the safety of large LHD vehicles, with blind-spots arising from the LHD and the probable inexperience of drivers with these problems.
In the late 1960s, the Department for Transport considered whether to adopt right-hand traffic. The idea was rejected as unsafe and too costly. Consequently, road building standards, for motorways in particular, allow asymmetrically designed road junctions, where merge and diverge lanes differ in length.
Exceptions to the rule
During the Lockerbie bombing trial of 2000–02, Camp Zeist in the Netherlands was decreed to be British territory subject to Scots law. Dumfries and Galloway police, who were responsible for policing traffic movements within the compound, required drivers to comply with the Continental European practice of driving on the right.
Trains on multiple-track lines in the United Kingdom run on the left, with a few exceptions, notably the personal rapid transit system at London Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5, which runs on the right; and Gatwick's people mover, which has no driving side but instead operates as 2 independent dirails, similar to a 4-rail funicular.
Military fleets and bases
On some British Army training locations, where the army once trained for conflict in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, traffic is meant to travel on the right. Most military bases in the UK, though, have the normal rule of driving on the left.
Vehicles within United States visiting forces bases in the United Kingdom drive on the left, even though the United States does not provide right-hand-drive vehicles for its green fleet. However, its white fleet does have some right-hand-drive vehicles for elements such as Non-Appropriated Fund activities and UK-only specialist vehicles. Most white fleet vehicles (known as "GSA" or "TMP" vehicles) are shipped over from the United States and are LHD. This is unlike British practice in Germany, where even UK green fleet vehicles for British Forces Germany have been left-hand drive.
During World War II, American truck makers Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge built 'Canadian Military Pattern truck' [CMP] for use throughout the British Empire and most were right-hand drive to use in left-traffic countries.
Warning sign on the border between Sweden and Norway in 1934
A highway close to Madrid (Spain)
Gibraltar is RHT.
Left-hand traffic in Vienna, c.1930
A sign on Australia's Great Ocean Road reminding foreign motorists to keep left. Such signs are placed at the exit of parking areas associated with scenic views, where other road traffic may at times be sparse.
The N2 approaching Cape Town
Road sign near Uluru/Ayers Rock reminding foreign drivers to keep left.
Vehicles entering and leaving Macau cross over each other at the Lotus Bridge.
Driver on the right side for left-hand traffic
Headlamp sold in Sweden not long before Dagen H change from left- to right-hand traffic. Opaque decal blocks lens portion that would provide low beam upkick to the right, and bears warning "Not to be removed before 3 September 1967".
Mumbai Pune Expressway, India
Sign reminding motorists to drive on the left in Ireland
A road in downtown Charlotte Amalie, U.S. Virgin Islands.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Right- and left-hand traffic.|
- Google Maps placemarks of border crossings where traffic changes sides (browser-based), also available as a Google Earth placemarks file (requires Google Earth)
- The Extraordinary Street Railways of Asunción, Paraguay