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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
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

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 Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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