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.
163 countries and territories use RHT, with the remaining 76 countries and territories using 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 including Canada, Spain, and Brazil had different rules in different parts of the country. During the 1900s many countries standardized 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 to RHT.
Many of the countries with LHT are former British colonies in the Caribbean, Southern Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Japan, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, Mozambique, Suriname, East Timor, and Indonesia are among those LHT countries outside the former British Empire. In Europe, only four countries still drive on the left: the United Kingdom, Ireland, Malta, and Cyprus, all of which are islands.
Nearly all countries use one side or the other throughout their entire territory. Most exceptions are due to historical considerations and involve islands with no road connection to the main part of a 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.
According to the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, water traffic is RHT. For aircraft the US Federal Aviation Regulations provide for passing on the right, both in the air and on water.
Light rail vehicles generally operate on the same side as road traffic in a country. Some countries use RHT for automobiles but LHT for trains, often because of the influence of the British on early railway systems.
There is no technical reason to prefer one side over the other. In healthy populations, traffic safety is thought to be the same regardless of handedness, although some researchers have speculated that LHT may be safer for ageing populations since humans are more commonly right-eye dominant than left-eye dominant.
Ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Roman troops kept to the left when marching. 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 the (typically right-handed) postilion held his whip in his right hand and thus sat on the left rear horse. 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 Malaya (now Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore), 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.
The first keep-right law for driving in the United States was passed in 1792 and applied to the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike. New York formalized RHT in 1804, New Jersey in 1813 and Massachusetts in 1821.
Influential in Europe was the 1920 Paris Convention, which advised driving on the right-hand side of the road, in order to harmonize traffic across a continent with many borders. This was despite the fact that left-hand traffic was still widespread: in 1915 for example, LHT was introduced everywhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, three years later the Empire was split up into several countries, and they all changed eventually to RHT, notably including when Nazi Germany introduced RHT with almost immediate effect in Czechoslovakia in 1938-39.
Sweden was LHT from about 1734 to 1967, despite having land borders with RHT countries, and virtually all the cars on the road in Sweden being left hand drive (LHD). A referendum was held in 1955, with an overwhelming majority voting against a change to RHT. Nevertheless, some years later the government ordered a conversion, which took place at 5 am on Sunday, 3 September 1967. The accident rate dropped sharply after the change, but soon rose back to near its original level. The day was known as Dagen H ("H-Day"), the 'H' being for Högertrafik or right traffic. When Iceland switched the following year, it was known as H-dagurinn, again meaning "H-Day".
In the late 1960s, the UK Department for Transport considered switching to RHT, but declared it unsafe and too costly for such a built-up nation. Road building standards, for motorways in particular, allow asymmetrically designed road junctions, where merge and diverge lanes differ in length.
Asia and the Pacific
China adopted RHT in 1946. Taiwan changed to driving on the right at the same time. Hong Kong and Macau continue to be LHT.
Myanmar switched to RHT in 1970.
Samoa, a former German colony, 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 right hand drive (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 against 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 RHT 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 7 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 declared 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.
The Philippines was mostly LHT during its Spanish and American colonial periods, the latter despite America's switch to RHT in the 1930s (see above); as well as during the Commonwealth era. During the Japanese occupation the Philippines remained LHT, also because LHT had been required by the Japanese; but during the Battle of Manila the liberating American forces drove their tanks to the right for easier facilitation of movement. RHT was formally finalized by Executive Order No. 34 signed by President Sergio Osmeña on 10 March 1945.
A number of non-contiguous former British colonies in West Africa originally drove LHT and switched to RHT in the early 1970s to match the surrounding countries. Sierra Leone switched to RHT in 1971, Nigeria in 1972 and Ghana in 1974. Before this period The Gambia, a country entirely contained within RHT Senegal, had officially switched to RHT in 1965.
Rwanda, a former Belgian colony in central Africa, is RHT but is considering switching to LHT, to bring the country in line with other members of the East African Community (EAC). A survey, carried out in 2009, indicated that 54% of Rwandans were in favour of the switch. 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 RHD cars are 16 to 49 per cent cheaper than their LHD equivalents. In 2014 an internal report from consultants to the Ministry of Infrastructure recommended a switch to LHT. In 2015, the ban on RHD vehicles was lifted; RHD trucks from neighboring countries cost $1000 less than LHD models imported from Europe.
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.
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.
Some countries have borders where drivers must switch from LHT to RHT and vice versa.
LHT Thailand has three RHT neighbors: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar. 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.
There are four road border crossing points between Hong Kong and Mainland China. 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.
Road vehicle configurations
Driver seating position
In RHT jurisdictions, vehicles are configured with 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 center 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.
Historically there was less consistency in the relationship of the position of the driver to the handedness of traffic. Most American cars produced before 1910 were RHD. In 1908 Henry Ford standardized the Model T as LHD in RHT America, arguing that with RHD and RHT, the passenger was obliged to "get out on the street side and walk around the car" and that with steering from the left, the driver "is able to see even the wheels of the other car and easily avoids danger." By 1915 other manufacturers followed Ford's lead, due to the popularity of the Model T.
In specialized cases, the driver will sit on the nearside, or kerbside. Examples include:
- Where the driver needs a good view of the nearside, e.g. street sweepers, or vehicles driven along unstable road edges.
- Where it is more convenient for the driver to be on the nearside, e.g. delivery vehicles. The Grumman LLV is widely in used on RHD configurations in RHT North America. Some Unimogs are designed to be switch between LHD and RHD to permit operators to work on the more convenient side of the truck.
The projection of light from low-beam headlamps is asymmetrical. The kerbside lamp projects light forwards, while the other headlamp dips the beam down and away from oncoming traffic, so as not to dazzle drivers coming in the opposite direction. 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. This is done 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 cars have a built in adjustment to adapt the projection mechanically.
Worldwide distribution by country
Of the 193 countries currently recognized by the United Nations, 139 use RHT and 54 use LHT. A country and its territories and dependencies is counted once.
|Country||Road traffic||Road switched sides||Multi-track rail traffic generally||Notes|
|Afghanistan||RHT||LHT||Was LHT until the 1950s, in line with neighbouring British Raj and later Pakistan.|
|Antigua and Barbuda||LHT|
|Argentina||RHT||10 June 1945||LHT||The anniversary on 10 June is still observed each year as Día de la Seguridad Vial (road safety day).|
|Australia||LHT||LHT||Commonwealth. Includes Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, Norfolk Island|
|Austria||RHT||1921 in Vorarlberg, 1930 in North Tyrol, 1935 in Carinthia and East Tyrol, 1938 in the rest of the country.||RHT||Originally LHT, like most of former Austria-Hungary.|
|Bahrain||RHT||1967||Former British protectorate. Switched to same side as neighbours.|
|Belgium||RHT||1899||LHT||The Brussels Metro runs on the right.|
|Belize||RHT||1961||Former British colony. Switched to same side as neighbours.|
|Bhutan||LHT||Under British protection before 1949.|
|Brazil||RHT||1928||LHT||A Portuguese colony until the early 19th century, switched some states still using LHT to RHT in 1928.|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||RHT||Switched sides after the collapse of Austria-Hungary.|
|Burundi||RHT||Considering switching to LHT in line with neighbours Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.|
|Cambodia||RHT||RHT implemented while part of French Indochina. RHD cars, many of which were smuggled from Thailand, were banned from 2001, even though they accounted for 80% of vehicles in the country.|
|Canada||RHT||1920s||RHT||Territories now in Canada have always been RHT, except British Columbia, which changed to RHT in stages from 1920 to 1923, and New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island which changed in 1922, 1923, and 1924 respectively. Newfoundland and Labrador changed to RHT in 1947 while still a dominion of the British Empire, two years before joining Canada.|
|Central African Republic||RHT|
|Chile||RHT||LHT||The Santiago Metro uses RHT.|
|China||RHT/LHT||1946||LHT/RHT||At one time, northern provinces were RHT due to American influence, while southern provinces were LHT due to British influence. LHT was uniform in the 1930s. China includes LHT Hong Kong and Macau, former colonies of Britain and Portugal, respectively.
Most metro systems use RHT, with the exception of the Hong Kong MTR.
|Democratic Republic of Congo||RHT|
|Croatia||RHT||RHT||Unlike most of Austria-Hungary was RHT but changed to LHT during the First World War. Switched to RHT on joining the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.|
|Cyprus||LHT||Former British colony.|
|Czech Republic||RHT||1939||RHT||Was LHT, like most of former Austria-Hungary, switched during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.|
|Denmark||RHT||RHT||Includes Faroe Islands and Greenland|
|Dominica||LHT||Former British colony.|
|East Timor||LHT||1976||Originally LHT, like its colonial power Portugal. Switched to RHT with Portugal in 1928. Under the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, changed back to LHT in 1976.|
|Egypt||RHT||LHT||Road vehicles are RHT due to French influence, but railway system was built by British companies.|
|Finland||RHT||1858||RHT||Formerly ruled by LHT Sweden, switched to RHT as the Grand Duchy of Finland by Russian decree.|
|France||RHT||1792||LHT/RHT||Includes French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Wallis and Futuna, French Guiana, Réunion, Saint Barthélemy, Collectivity of Saint Martin, Guadeloupe, Mayotte.|
|Ghana||RHT||1974||Former British colony. When changing to RHT a Twi language slogan was "Nifa, Nifa Enan" or "Right, Right, Fourth".|
|Hungary||RHT||1941||RHT||Originally LHT, like most of Austria-Hungary.|
|Iceland||RHT||1968||The day of the switch was known as H-dagurinn. Most passenger cars were already LHD.|
|India||LHT||LHT||Former British colony.|
|Indonesia||LHT||RHT||Trains in future Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit will drive on left|
|Italy||RHT||1920s||LHT||Until 1927 the countryside was RHT while cities were LHT. Rome changed to RHT in 1924 and Milan in 1926. Alfa Romeo and Lancia did not produce LHD cars until as late as 1950 and 1953 respectively, as many drivers favoured the RHD layout even in RHT as this offered the driver a clearer view of the edge of the road in mountainous regions at a time when many such roads lacked barriers or walls.
The metro systems in Brescia, Genoa, Milan, and Turin use RHT, as well as all tram systems.
Post-World War II Okinawa was ruled by the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands and was RHT. It was returned to Japan in 1972 went LHT in 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 RHT to LHT in the late 20th century.
|Jordan||RHT||RHT, despite the Mandate for Palestine and the Transjordan memorandum being under British rule till 1946.|
|Kenya||LHT||British colony until 1963.|
|North Korea and South Korea||RHT||1946||LHT||Korea had been LHT because of the influence of Japan in the 1900s. Switched to RHT under Soviet and American occupation after 1945.|
|Kyrgyzstan||RHT||Former part of RHT Soviet Union. In 2012, over 20,000 cheaper used RHD cars were imported from Japan.|
|Laos||RHT||LHT||RHT implemented while part of French Indochina.|
|Lebanon||RHT||Former French mandate.|
|Malaysia||LHT||LHT||Former British colony.|
|Malta||LHT||British colony until 1964.|
|Mauritania||RHT||Mining roads between Fdérik and Zouérat are LHT.|
|Mauritius||LHT||Former British colony. Island nation.|
|Myanmar||RHT||1970||LHT||Much of infrastructure still geared to LHT, most cars are pre-owned RHD vehicles, imported from Japan.|
|Netherlands||RHT||1906||RHT||Rotterdam was LHT until 1917. Includes Curaçao, Sint Maarten, and Aruba|
|Namibia||LHT||1918||RHT as a German colony. After South Africa occupied German South-West Africa during World War I, switched to LHT. South-West Africa was made a South African mandate by the League of Nations, and the new rule of the road was established in law.|
|New Zealand||LHT||LHT||Includes territories Niue and Cook Islands|
|Nigeria||RHT||1972||Former British colony. Switched to RHT as it is surrounded by former French RHT colonies.|
|Oman||RHT||Not a party to the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic and bans all foreign-registered RHD vehicles.|
|Papua New Guinea||LHT|
|Philippines||RHT||1946||RHT||LHT up until the Battle of Manila in 1945|
|Poland||RHT||RHT||Partitions of Poland belonging to the German Empire and the Russian Empire were RHT. Partitions that were part of Austria-Hungary were LHT and changed to RHT in the 1920s.|
|Portugal||RHT||1928||LHT||Colonies Goa, Macau and Mozambique, which had land borders with LHT countries, did not switch and continue to drive on the left.|
|Rwanda||RHT||Former Belgian mandate. Considering switching to LHT like its neighbours Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||LHT|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||LHT|
|Samoa||LHT||2009||Switched to LHT to allow the import cars more cheaply from Australia, New Zealand and Japan.|
|São Tomé and Príncipe||RHT||1928|
|Serbia||RHT||RHT||Vojvodina was LHT while part of Austria-Hungary.|
|Sierra Leone||RHT||1971||Importation of RHD vehicles was banned in 2013.|
|Singapore||LHT||Former British colony.|
|South Africa||LHT||LHT||Former British colony.|
|South Sudan||RHT||1973||Was LHT during the period of British colonial rule. Split from Sudan in 2011 after the majority of the population voted for independence.|
|Spain||RHT||1924||RHT||Up to the 1920s Barcelona was RHT, and Madrid was LHT until 1924. The Madrid Metro is LHT.|
|Sri Lanka||LHT||LHT||Former British Colony.|
|Sudan||RHT||1973||Former British Colony.|
|Taiwan||RHT||1946||Was LHT during the period of Japanese rule. The government of the Republic of China changed Taiwan to RHT in 1946 along with the rest of China.|
|Thailand||LHT||LHT||One of the few LHT countries not a former British colony. Shares long land border with RHT Laos and Cambodia.|
|Trinidad and Tobago||LHT||Former British colony.|
|Tunisia||RHT||French RHT was enforced in the French protectorate of Tunisia from 1881.|
|Ukraine||RHT||1922||RHT||Was LHT, like most of former Austria-Hungary. Carpathian Ruthenia remained LHT as part of Czechoslovakia before switching in 1941 as part of Hungary. The rest of Ukraine, having been part of the Russian Empire, already drove on the right.|
|United Arab Emirates||RHT||RHT|
|United Kingdom||LHT||LHT/RHT||Includes Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories Isle of Man, Guernsey, Jersey, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Channel Islands, Falkland Islands, Montserrat, Pitcairn Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Saint Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha. Gibraltar has been RHT since 1929 because of its land border with Spain.|
|United States||RHT||RHT/LHT||Includes American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico. U.S. Virgin Islands is LHT, like much of the Caribbean.|
|Uruguay||RHT||1945||Became LHT in 1918, but as in some other countries in South America, changed to RHT on 2 September 1945. A speed limit of 30 km/h (19 mph) was observed until 30 September for safety.|
|Vietnam||RHT||LHT||Became RHT as French Indochina.|
|Yemen||RHT||1977||South Yemen, formerly the British colony of Aden, changed to RHT 1977. A series of postage stamps commemorating the event was issued. North Yemen was already RHT.|
|Zimbabwe||LHT||LHT||Former British colony. In 2010 the government attempted to ban LHD vehicles.|
|Unless overtaking stay on the||left||right|
|In roundabouts traffic rotates||clockwise||counterclockwise|
|Oncoming traffic is seen coming from the||right||left|
|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|
Vehicles entering and leaving Macau cross over each other at the Lotus Bridge.
The entrance to the Channel Tunnel in France.
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"Art. 31. São obrigações communs a todos os conductores de vehiculos: a) conservar sua direita, trafegando o mais proximo possivel da beira da estrada, e sempre deixando a seu lado esquerdo espaço livre para passagem dos vehiculos que tiverem de passar á frente ou que transitarem em senttido contrario." (Translation: article 31: The common obligations to vehicle drivers are; a) Keep to the right, driving the closest as possible to the roadside, letting their left side free for vehicles overtaking or for oncoming traffic.), the first nationwide traffic legislation, cited unambiguously RHT as the standard for the country.
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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