CLOSE

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
iStock
iStock

Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

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

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios