Why does Australia drive on the left-hand side?

Left hand drive sign from Getty

Dimitri Halkidis

Posted February 22, 2022

Left-hand traffic may be standard here in Australia, but it’s a trend that is in the vast minority around the world. How did this happen?

Roughly a quarter of all countries around the world drive on the left, with the rest adopting right-hand traffic. The origin of this law is as complicated as it is vague, and there are many legends that have persisted in an attempt to explain its origins. Some classics include:

  • Most people are right-handed, that’s why most of the world drives on the right
  • When horses are being led, the tradition is to lead them with your right hand, so people would walk on the right-hand side of the road to keep their horses separate
  •  Swords are usually held in the right hand, so people needed to walk on the left-hand side for self-defense

All of these are amusing anecdotes, with some small hints of truth buried in them, but they don’t tell the whole story.

Left or right – which is right?

Australia: Left-hand traffic

We drive on the left for one reason and one reason only: Britain told us to. No, really. As a British colony up until we became a federation in 1901, Australia readily adopted left-hand traffic, no doubt because it made both cultural and economic sense to do so. So why then did Britain adopt left-hand traffic?

Britain: Left-hand traffic

In 1669, London had a bit of a traffic problem. Sitting on the River Thames, lots of crucial trade passed back and forth over London Bridge, which meant they needed a way to regulate this traffic before things got too out of hand. So, a new job was created for someone to sit on the bridge and get traffic from one direction to stick to one side of the bridge, and from the other direction to stick to the other.

As you can imagine, it got a bit confusing, so London lawmakers wrote up a law which said that all carts coming from London needed to travel on the east side of the bridge, and traffic coming into London needed to travel on the west-side. And so, the first-ever written law outlining left-hand traffic was created.


Left hand drive in Australia

Australia has followed Great Britain by driving on the left-hand side. 


USA: Right-hand traffic

Before rail, the United States relied a lot on large wagons pulled by teams of horses to transport goods across great distances, similar to Australia’s now-famous road trains.

These wagons had nowhere for the driver to sit, so instead, they sat on the left-most horse so they could hold their whip in their right hand while they drove.

Because of where they sat, they preferred to drive on the right so they could better see when other wagons overtook them. That preferred way of driving stuck, which is why the US now drives on the right.

Japan: Left-hand traffic

Though Japan was never a British colony, the reason they drive on the left nowadays is partially due to British influence. Before cars were invented, people in Japan preferred to walk on the left for self-defense reasons. Apparently, it’s easier to defend yourself with a sword if it’s holstered on the arm closest to your opponent.

But this was never really until 1872 when Japan’s first railway was built with help from - you guessed it - Britain.

Because Britain had firmly adopted left-hand traffic by then, they designed the rail network with left-hand traffic in mind. From there it was much easier for Japanese society to themselves drive on the left when cars became commonplace.


Thailand tuk tuk

Thailand (above) drives on the left, but neighbouring Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar all drive on the right.


Changing lanes

While there are very few countries around the world that border another who drive on the opposite side of the road, there are a few. For example, Thailand is one of the countries that drive on the left, but neighbouring Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar all drive on the right. If driving from Cambodia to Thailand, you will discover an intricate traffic light system at the border which will move you to the other side of the road. 

More eloquent solutions have been made, including the stunning Lotus Bridge connecting Macau – a former Portuguese colony that adopted left-hand driving - to the right-hand driving Hengqin Island, part of China.

There have also been some countries that have, in modern times switched from left to right-hand drive but have resulted in some nightmares for the transport network. Unless there is a good reason, it’s much easier to stick to what you have.


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