How everyone masters driving on the left

MobileKids explains why one third of all people drive on the left-hand side of the road and what special features this entails for road users.

When you hear about left-hand traffic in Germany, you immediately think of countries like England, Australia or South Africa. Because while the road traffic regulations in this country stipulate that vehicles must drive on the right, there are numerous countries in which vehicles are driven on the left. To be quite precise: in 59 of the 221 countries and independent territories of the world, the left-hand driving regulations apply. This means that about one third of humanity - whether by car, bus or bicycle - travels on the left-hand side of the road.

Colonial times leave their traces

In Europe, left-hand traffic is rare. Apart from Great Britain and Ireland, only Malta and Cyprus drive on the left - two Mediterranean islands that were once British colonies. And elsewhere, too, nowadays left-hand traffic prevails mainly in countries that used to be colonies of the United Kingdom. For example, in countries in southern and eastern Africa, India, Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand. Thailand, Japan and Indonesia are exceptions. There, people drive on the left, even though the countries have no connection to the colonial era.

A look into the history books

Right-hand traffic is not as commonplace as many believe today. In former times, in Roman times, when there were still many horsemen and carriage drivers on the roads, left-hand traffic was indeed the rule in most regions of the world. The reason for this was the majority of right-handed people who preferred to mount their horse from the left. Even coachmen, who usually sat on the right side of the coach box so as not to endanger the people sitting behind them when lashing out with the whip, preferred the left side of the road for reasons of visibility.

It was only as a result of the French Revolution that traffic in France and later also in the European countries conquered by Napoleon was converted to right-hand traffic - and most of the countries stuck to it. Only Austria switched back to the old customary left-hand traffic for a limited period of time. By 1967, however, the whole of mainland Europe had moved to the right. Sweden was the last nation to adjust its direction of travel.

The fact that nowadays people do not drive on the same side of the road everywhere in the world can sometimes be irritating for us humans. Because even as small children, we get used to the traffic rules of the country in which we grow up and have our first experiences in road traffic. If we are guests in a country where other traffic rules apply, such as a different driving direction, we must be all the more careful. Even as a pedestrian, it is better to look once too often than once too little.

Whereas in most of Europe, for example, people look to the left first when crossing the road so as not to miss cars on the right, in countries with left-hand traffic it is the other way round. Here you should not forget to look to the right first. In London, for example, "Look Right" signs on the street remind people that traffic is approaching from the right.

Mainland Europeans must think along the same lines

Even in the underground railway tunnels of major British cities, the directions are reversed: in each case the escalator on the left leads into the underground and out again after the ride. And if you walk on the outside right in the narrow underground corridors of the underground railway stations, you may bump into another pedestrian at the next junction to the right. So thinking along the same lines - especially for mainland Europeans - is indispensable.

Questions about driving on the left

1. Can you drive a German car in left-hand traffic?

In principle, there are no legal restrictions. So if you own a left-hand drive car, you can also drive it in the UK or Ireland. However, if you want to live in the respective country for a longer period of time, you must at least re-register your left-hand-drive vehicle.

2. Can the rule "right before left" simply be changed to "left before right"?

No. In England, for example, the rule does not exist. There are clear signs or markings on the road at intersections that regulate the right of way. In Australia, on the other hand, the "right before left" priority rule applies despite left-hand traffic. Therefore, it is important to always be well informed before travelling.

3. Could it be that at some point Germany will also switch back to left-hand traffic?

This is not to be expected because the effort to convert the entire road traffic would be far too great. In addition, all other European countries would then have to change their direction of travel as well, because otherwise great chaos would ensue. And even so, the Germans seem to have rather little interest in left-hand traffic. This was evident when news circulated in April 2018 that the city of Hanover was going to start a model trial and shift traffic from the right-hand side to the left-hand side. The excitement was great - until the April Fool's joke was dismissed a little later.

Another crucial difference between countries with left-hand traffic and those with right-hand traffic becomes clear when you look at cars as well as other means of transport with more than two wheels. Ultimately, these are also adapted to the direction of travel. While in Germany you almost exclusively see vehicles with the steering wheel mounted on the left-hand side, in countries like England or Australia you find mostly right-hand-drive vehicles. So the cars are specially designed for left-hand traffic.

The gearshift lever, on the other hand, is in the centre, as with left-hand drive. At the same time, however, this means that drivers who were previously used to shifting gears with their right hand will have to adjust. The good news: the pedals for the clutch, brake and accelerator are installed in the same order in both types of vehicle.

Only every fourth vehicle is right-hand drive

Due to the fact that significantly more people worldwide drive on the right-hand side of the road, the demand for left-hand-drive vehicles is also much greater than that for right-hand-drive vehicles. Only one in four vehicles produced today is built with a steering wheel on the right-hand side. For buses that have their doors on the other side, the number is even lower.

The largest markets for right-hand-drive vehicles include the UK, Australia, Japan, India and South Africa. These countries - with the exception of Australia - are also home to the largest manufacturers of right-hand-drive vehicles. Mercedes-Benz, for example, produces the C-Class for left-hand traffic in East London in South Africa's Eastern Cape.