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How Do Countries Choose Which Side They Drive On?

Chaos has descended this week on the tiny Pacific island of Samoa after government officials decided to force the entire nation to switch sides of the road on Monday. While Samoan officials insist there have been no accidents as a result of asking drivers to switch from driving on the right side of the road to driving on the left, many non-driving Samoans have been left stranded because the island's buses now open to the middle of the road.

Samoa is the first nation since the 1970s to switch sides and did so, they say, to end their reliance on left-hand drive vehicles imported at great expense from America. All well and good, but the real question here is why do different nations drive on different sides of the roads? Here in England, where traffic comes from the right, it took me more than a few weeks to stop looking left every time I went to cross the street—training that was completely undone when I went to France for two weeks at the end of the summer.

So what is the deal with the "wrong" side of the road? How do countries decide which side they drive on?

Because The Pope Said So

According to some sources, about a quarter of the world drives on the left, as they do in Britain. This isn't too surprising, since at one time Britain owned about a quarter of the world. Traveling on the left side of the road was a practice that started with the feudal societies of Western world, like the proto-British empire "“ back in the day, you never knew who'd you pass on the road, so best to keep your sword arm between you and them. In 1300 AD, Pope Boniface VIII codified the practice with a law that decreed that pilgrims headed for Rome should keep on the left.

The Birth of the Left-Hand Drivers' Seat

Things were going fine until the advent of market-based agriculture on a grand scale. In the 1700s, farmers in the US and France began hauling their products to market in big rigs pulled by many horses. Because these wagons typically had no place to sit, drivers would sit on the rear left horse, with their right arm free to whip the team along "“ and the left-hand drivers' seat was born. Drivers naturally tended to ride on the right side of the road now, because it was safer to meet oncoming vehicles from where you could see their wheels. In 1792, a Pennsylvania law required that vehicles keep right, other states following soon after.

Because Napoleon Said So

Another explanation blames Napoleon. Because Napoleon was left-handed, he demanded that everyone approach from the right, so he could keep his sword arm between himself and anyone he'd meet. That's not exactly true; the custom of keeping to the right actually pre-dated Napoleon, but he did make sure his troops followed it whilst they spread their Empire, and from Napoleon's lips to law. Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain, which were all at one point under Napoleon's either direct control or influence, subsequently drive on the right.

It's an England/France Thing

So on two different continents, the "keep right" rule was becoming entrenched "“ while in England, keeping left remained the only way to go, especially after a 1756 city ordinance decreed that all traffic on the London Bridge must keep to the left. From there, it was all about influence.

Though not a hard and fast rule, places that were under French and US influence kept right, while those under the British Empire and its influence still kept left.

In Japan in 1859, for example, a British ambassador was able to convince the government there to keep left, a major coup for the lefties and Britain (this is what the Brits say; the Japanese, however, may disagree and claim that their decision to keep left had more to do with samurai warriors and their needs).

Because Hitler Said So

With the invention of the automobile, countries had good reason to pick a side and stick to it, although not all did. By 1938, there was another reason: Wherever Hitler invaded, he forced the native populations to drive on the right. Parts of Austria, including Vienna, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, that had historically driven on the left now had to drive on the right.

Ask Your Neighbors

Countries were still making "which side?" decisions well into the second half of the 20th century. Sweden, for example, switched to driving on the right in 1967 because by then, most of the countries their burgeoning car industry sold to were right-side countries. By this time, the clearest indicator of which side a country drives on became what its neighbors did, and with whom they traded.

Of course, some places, like the US Virgin Islands, confuse the issue even more by driving left-hand side cars on the left side of the road "“ it's the only place under US purview that does so.

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Big Questions
Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
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CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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