Left Side, Right Side

One of the first things a visitor notices upon arrival in Japan is that the locals, for the most part, drive on the left side of the road. I say “for the most part” because that custom clearly does not apply to bicyclists, who drive on either side of the road, down the middle of neighborhood streets, and quite often on the sidewalk. Somehow, accidents are rare, and everyone seems to proceed with a degree of caution unimaginable in the West.

Understandably, when you graduate to a motorized vehicle in Japan, you are expected to stick to the left side of the road, and of course driving on the sidewalk is out of the question, probably a good thing, on balance. So it was with some trepidation that I embarked on my first motorized Japanese experience last fall, as the pilot of a freshly minted Honda Today scooter, 50cc of raw unbridled power awaiting a mere flick of the wrist to achieve warp speed. Um, make that “walking speed.”

My previous two-wheeled conveyance had been a Honda as well, albeit a somewhat more manly one, a Nighthawk of exponentially more engine displacement and power, but I thought I would err on the side of conservatism this time around, and you just can’t get much more conservative than a 50cc scooter.

The left side thing proved to be less daunting than I remembered. For my premiere “a gauche” performance back in the early 1980s, I drove a then-new Jaguar XJ-6 from central London to Paris (fittingly, to the Left Bank), first dealing with driving on the wrong side of the road, then once in France, steering from the wrong side of the car. For a first-timer, this is akin to, say, driving from the back seat. I was borderline catatonic upon arrival in the City of Light, and I have little doubt that the effect spilled over onto my passengers and nearby traffic as well. I didn’t have another chance to test my left-side mettle until the mid-1990s, at which point I motored around Bermuda at the stately speed of 20mph, limited both by the legalities and by the hair-dryer-sized engine of the moped I rode. Clearly, this was the place (and the velocity) for learning about the vagaries of opposite side driving. It’s weird, though, the first time you come to a roundabout; every instinct is telling you “go counter-clockwise” and all the other traffic is doing exactly the opposite. My mother’s words echoed in my ears: “If everybody else was jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you have to jump too?” Funny how those things crop up at the most inopportune times.

Anyway, as I  became a bit more used to the notion of driving a motorized conveyance in Japan, I got to thinking: how many places are there where folks drive on the left? And what percentage of the world’s drivers consider that the norm? Obviously, England and Japan jump to mind. If you look at a Mercator Projection of Planet III, by far the heaviest concentration of left-side-driving countries falls in the lower right sector, a broad strip extending from southeastern Africa to New Zealand, encompassing Pakistan, India, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia, some of the most populous countries in the world. From a population perspective, as of 1996, right-siders outnumbered left-siders by about two-to-one worldwide. Those are just gross numbers, though, not taking into account how many people in each country are actually drivers. As countries like India and Indonesia become more prosperous, the stats will likely tilt a bit more toward the left-hand-driving side of the balance.

Confusing the whole issue is that US cars are known as “LHD” (left-hand drive), because their steering wheels are on the left. UK and Japan home-market cars are “RHD” (guess what that means…and why). Go figure.

A few interesting factoids about left-side drive:

In my home province of Prince Edward Island, the change from left-road to right road drive took place in 1924. My grandmothers were both kind of scary drivers at the best of times, and all things considered, I am pretty happy not to have been on the road in PEI that day.

In Sweden, they changed from left-hand to right-hand drive overnight, at 5am on a Sunday. “Wow,” a friend of mine commented one evening over beers in a London pub, “that must have been strange, you know, to have it happen all at once like that.” We considered that for a moment or two, and then I replied, “Yeah, maybe, but it really isn’t the sort of thing you can roll out over a couple of weeks, on a road-by-road basis…”

The last two left-side-driving holdouts in the mainland Americas are Guyana and Surinam. Several Central and South American countries made the switch at the time of the construction of the Pan-American highway (Belize and Argentina, among others).

Colonies don’t always follow the leader: China drives on the right, Hong Kong and Macau on the left; the US drives on the right, Virgin Islands on the left; the UK drives on the left, Gibraltar on the right.

Bucking the trend to driving on the right, in September 2009, the Pacific island of Samoa made the switch to driving on the left, to allow Samoans to source cheaper RHD cars from Japan and Southeast Asia, and so that Samoans living in Australia and New Zealand can drive on the side of the road that is familiar to them when visiting their homeland.

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