Sides of the Road/Path

22:00 Fri 14 Aug 2009
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Tom Vanderbilt has a fascinating article in Salon today about Samoa switching its driving side and about the history of what side of the road countries drive on.

I always wondered about the origin of these differences, and wrongly thought that they came from decisions made by early automobile pioneers. Vanderbilt cites Peter Kincaid’s The Rule of the Road for some explanations:

[A] samurai in Japan, who kept his scabbard on his left side and would draw with his right arm, wanted to be on the left as he passed potential enemies on the road. So Japan today drives (and, to a certain extent, walks) on the left. In England, horse-drawn carts were generally piloted by drivers mounted in the seat. The mostly right-handed drivers would “naturally” sit to the right, holding the reins in the left hand and the whip in the right. The driver could better judge oncoming traf?c by traveling on the left. So England drives on the left.

—Tom Vanderbilt. “Whose side of the road are you on?”. Salon, 14 Aug 2009.

Handedness rears its ugly head again.

As a somewhat-ambisinister lefty, this doesn’t really bother me, and in fact I don’t think that handedness is too likely to affect one’s driving in either right-hand-traffic or left-hand-traffic systems.

I have plenty of driving experience in both systems, and don’t find the switchover too difficult. I think that one of the keys to making that switchover is to drive a route you’re familiar with as soon as possible after arriving in the new environment: driving a familiar route means you’ll have plenty of cues to remind you of what the correct lane is, and this will settle you into the habits appropriate for the environment.

If you’re making the switchover in an environment where there are no familiar routes, and you’re really worried about the adjustment, you could try driving some simple nearby route a few times to make it familiar, thus achieving close to the same effect.

The issue of what side to walk on is one I don’t usually consider, but it’s also rather interesting, and more clearly linked to handedness. I simply didn’t realize that countries had laws or regulations about pedestrian traffic and what side to walk on, although I can see how they make some sense.

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