Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Rules of the road
- This article concerns rules of the road regarding land vehicles; for sea-going vehicles, see International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.
Rules of the road are the general practices and procedures followed by people on roads, especially those driving cars or on bicycles or other vehicles. They govern interactions with other vehicles, and with pedestrians. The basic traffic rules are defined by an international treaty under the authority of the United Nations, the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. Not all countries are signatory to the convention and, even among those that are, local variations in practice may be found. Driving safely is usually easier if a driver can adapt to both written and unwritten local rules of the road.
These rules should be distinguished from the mechanical procedures required to operate one's vehicle. See driving.
Left or right
see also road
The first rule to learn for a particular country is which side to drive on. This is so fundamental that it is sometimes known simply as the rule of the road.
In countries where traffic drives on the right side of the road:
- if one were to stand in the centre of the road and face traffic (standing either way), vehicles will approach the observer from the observer's left, and will approach the observer from behind them on their right;
- vehicles have the driver's seat and hence the steering wheel on the left; this is called left-hand drive (LHD);
- traffic signs are mostly on the right side of the road;
- roundabouts (traffic circles) go counterclockwise;
- pedestrians crossing a two-way road should watch out for traffic from the left first.
In countries where traffic drives on the left side of the road:
- if one were to stand in the centre of the road and face traffic (standing either way), vehicles will approach the observer from the observer's right, and will approach the observer from behind them on their left;
- vehicles have the driver's seat and hence the steering wheel on the right; this is called right-hand drive (RHD);
- traffic signs are mostly on the left side of the road;
- roundabouts (traffic circles) go clockwise;
- pedestrians crossing a two-way road should watch out for traffic from the right first.
With regard to the driver's seat: Most early motor cars had the drivers seat in the middle. Later some manufacturers chose to have the driver's seat nearest the centre of the road in order to look out for oncoming traffic whilst others chose to put the seat on the other side so that the drivers could avoid damaging their vehicles on walls, hedges, roadside gutters and other obstacles. Eventually the former idea prevailed.
Countries that drive on the left
Approximately one quarter to one third of the world's countries drive on the left-hand side of the road. Most of the countries that drive on the left are former colonies of the British Empire. There are exceptions: Japan, Indonesia, Macau, Mozambique, and Thailand drive on the left, although they were never British colonies; and Canada and the United States drive on the right, although they were once under British rule.
The idea to travel on the left side of the road stemmed from the need for self defence on rural roads. Most people use their right hand for fencing and when horse-mounted, travelling on the left side of the road was the only way to draw and be able to use the sword swiftly. The first legal reference in Britain to an order for traffic to remain on the left occurred in 1756 with regard to London Bridge. The General Highways Act of 1773, contained a recommendation that horse traffic remain on the left and this was enshrined in the Highways Bill in 1835. At one point the rule was enshrined in a piece of doggerel:
- The rule of the road is a paradox quite,
- For if you keep to the left, you're sure to be right.
The British author C. Northcote Parkinson has presented a "proof" that the British way of driving (on the left side of the road) is the natural one.
List of countries driving on the left
Lumping regions where feasible, and omitting only some countries that are small in both area and population:
- Americas: Bermuda, Caribbean islands (except Martinique, Guadeloupe, Netherlands Antilles, Aruba, Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic), Guyana, Suriname, Falkland Islands
- Europe: UK (including Channel Islands and Isle of Man), Ireland, Malta, Cyprus
- Africa: south and southeast (including Mauritius and Seychelles, but not Madagascar)
- Asia: South Asia (except Afghanistan); Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, South East Asia (except the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar)
- Oceania: all (except Samoa, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna)
- All countries of the Middle East: including Bahrain and other countries which were under the British rule.
Some countries have changed which side of the road their motorists drive on in order to ease congestion at border crossings. For example, former British colonies in West Africa, such as Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Ghana have changed from left to right hand traffic, as they all share borders with former French colonies, which drive on the right.
In the former British Crown colony of Hong Kong and the former Portuguese enclave of Macau, cars continue to drive on the left, unlike in mainland China, despite the fact that they are now Special Administrative Regions of the People's Republic of China. However, Taiwan, formerly under Japanese rule, changed to driving on the right in 1946 after the government of the then Republic of China assumed administration; the same happened in Korea, a former Japanese colony under US and Soviet occupation.
However, many countries changed the rule of the road as a result of foreign occupation, notably during the Napoleonic Wars. More recently there are examples such as Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary under German rule in the 1930s and '40s. The Channel Islands also changed to driving on the right under German occupation, but changed back after liberation in 1945, as did the Falkland Islands under Argentine occupation in 1982. East Timor changed to driving on the left under Indonesian rule in 1976, and continues the practice as an independent state.
In Italy the practice of traffic driving on the right side first began in the late 1890s, but it was not until the mid 1920s that it became standard throughout the country. The practice was first introduced in cities under socialist control, such as Rome and Naples, with conservative-controlled cities like Milan and Turin continuing to have cars driving on the left side. Cars remained right-hand drive (RHD) until the mid 1920s, with Lancia not producing left-hand drive (LHD) cars until as late as the early 1960s.
Until 1946, driving in mainland China was mixed, with cars in the northern provinces driving on the right, and cars in the southern provinces such as Guangdong driving on the left, probably a result of their proximity to the British crown colony of Hong Kong and the Portuguese exclave of Macau.
After 1946, cars driving on the right became uniform in mainland China. However, during the Cultural Revolution, cars were made to drive on the left for political reasons. This did not last for long, and motorists have since reverted back to driving on the right.
Until the 1920s, the rule of the road in Canada varied from province to province, with British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island having cars driving on the left, and the other provinces and territories having motorists driving on the right. Between 1920 and 1923, these provinces' motorists were made to drive on the right. Newfoundland was not part of Canada until 1949, and its motorists drove on the left until 1947. More information of Nova Scotia's experience of the changeover in 1923 can be found here.
Sweden had left-hand traffic (Vänstertrafik in Swedish) from approximately 1736. It continued to do so well into the 20th century despite the fact that virtually all the cars on the road in Sweden were actually LHD. Also, Sweden's neighbours, Norway, Finland and Denmark already had cars driving on the right side, leading to confusion at border crossings. In 1955 a referendum was held on the issue, resulting in an 82.9%-to-15.5% vote against a change to driving on the right.
Nevertheless, in 1963 the Swedish government passed legislation ordering the switch to right-hand traffic. The changeover took place on a Sunday morning at 5am on September 3, 1967, which was known in Swedish as Dagen H (H-Day), the 'H' being for Högertrafik or right-hand traffic.
Since Swedish cars were LHD, experts had suggested that changing to driving on the right would reduce accidents, because drivers would have a better view of the road ahead. Indeed, fatal car-to-car and car-to-pedestrian accidents dropped sharply as a result. However, the accident rate rose back to original rate within 2 years as people became aware of the lower accident rate, and adjusted their driving style accordingly.
Sweden's fellow Nordic country of Iceland followed in switching traffic from left to right on Sunday, May 26, 1968. That switch also occurred at 6 o'clock in the morning, and the only major casualty from the changeover was a boy on a bicycle who broke his leg. (New York Times, May 28, 1968, page 94.) Numerous buses were also stuck in traffic jams.
United States of America
Since colonial times, traffic in the USA has always been on the right side. There is a common story that this may be due to the construction of Conestoga wagons, which had a high driver's seat on the left side. Many imported RHD cars are also found on the road in the U.S., especially classic cars or other collector's items.
Today, U.S. cars are always LHD, and motorists always drive on the right side and overtake on the left, with the exception of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
As with many countries, American rules of the road also permit limited overtaking on the right side (multi-lane highways, one-way streets, or where overtaking other vehicles preparing to turn toward the left.
Furthermore, some U.S. states (including, for example, Massachusetts) require that all traffic on a public way proceed in the right-most lane, except when overtaking others — a law that is often ignored by motorists on multi-lane roadways.
In some states, like California, cars may use any lane on multi-lane roadways (although slower drivers are strongly encouraged to stay in the rightmost lanes to reduce traffic congestion and road rage). But trucks in California are subject to the rule that they must stay in the right lane as much as possible, or in the right two lanes where the roadway has four or more lanes going in their direction. Some of the oldest freeway interchanges in California were foolishly constructed with left-side onramps and offramps, so the approaching freeways often feature "TRUCKS MAY USE ALL LANES" signs which override the default rule.
In many Caribbean islands where traffic drives on the left, such as the British Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands, most if not all passenger cars are LHD, being imported from the United States. Only government cars are RHD.
Hong Kong and Macau
Hong Kong and Macau, now Special Administrative Regions of the People's Republic of China continue to have traffic on the left, with most vehicles being RHD. A small number of vehicles are LHD, especially military vehicles of the People's Liberation Army, and commercial vehicles providing cross-border services to mainland China. When crossing the border, vehicles go through a car park, from which they exit on the 'correct' side of the road. Vehicles registered in Hong Kong and Macau are required to have additional licence plates, usually from the Guangdong province, in order for them to be driven on the mainland.
In Japan, foreign brands of car sold locally have traditionally been LHD, which is regarded as a status symbol. This even applies to British brands, in spite of the fact that authentic British cars have the steering wheel on the right. However, some US manufacturers have made RHD models for the Japanese market, though with limited success, and as European brands become more popular, the preference is increasingly for RHD models.
As a former British colony, cars in Burma (now called Myanmar) drove on the left side until 1970, when the military regime of Ne Win decreed that traffic would drive on the right side of the road. It is alleged that this was because Ne Win had been advised by his soothsayer, who had said 'move to the right', although this was in fact a reference to economic policy. In spite of the change, most passenger cars in the country today are RHD, being used vehicles imported from Japan, Thailand, and Singapore. However, government limousines, imported from China, are LHD.
Although the British territory of Gibraltar changed to driving on the right in 1929, in order to avoid accidents involving vehicles from Spain, some public buses until recently were RHD, with a special door allowing passengers to enter on the right hand side. However, most passenger cars are LHD, as in Spain, with the exception of used cars brought in from the UK and Japan and some vehicles used by the British forces.
For safety reasons, some countries have prohibited the sale or import of vehicles with the steering wheel on the 'wrong' side. In Australia this is the case with non-vintage LHD vehicles, with the result that Australians who do import such vehicles must pay thousands of dollars to convert them to RHD. In New Zealand, LHD vehicles may be privately imported and driven locally, but must be converted to RHD when resold.
Cambodia banned the use of RHD cars, most of which were smuggled from Thailand, from 2001, even though these accounted for 80 per cent of vehicles in the country. The government threatened to confiscate all such vehicles unless they were converted to LHD, in spite of the considerable expense involved. According to a BBC report, changing the steering column from right to left would cost between US$600 and US$2000, in a country where annual income was less than US$1000.
There is some evidence of cart tracks from a quarry in Blunsdon Ridge near Swindon which suggests that Roman traffic was on the left, and until the 18th century, this was probably the most common choice in Europe. However, driving on the right was more common in France; this was imposed by Napoleon Bonaparte on the countries he occupied, and thus it became the practice in their colonies.
In many countries, the rules of the road are codified, setting out the legal requirements which if broken may lead to prosecution.
In the United Kingdom, the rules are set out in the Highway Code, including some obligations, but also a lot of other advice on how to drive sensibly and safely. For this second set of advice, it states Although failure to comply with the other rules of the Code will not, in itself, cause a person to be prosecuted, The Highway Code may be used in evidence in any court proceedings under Traffic Acts to establish liability.
In the United States, traffic laws are regulated by the states and municipalities through their respective traffic code. The federal government's Department of Transportation has some control over road signage and vehicle safety, and limited control over the Interstate highway system (which is actually built and maintained by the states).
However, all state vehicle or traffic laws have common elements. These include the mandatory automobile insurance requirement, right-of-way rules, the basic speed rule (go only as fast as is safe under the circumstances up to the maximum posted speed limit), and the requirement that one must stop after an accident. The most common state-by-state variation is in maximum speed limits; for example, rural states like Montana have speed limits as high as 75 mph (120 km/h), but Oregon has a maximum speed limit of 65 mph (105 km/h) and Hawaii has a maximum of 55 mph. (89 km/h).
This list should be consulted regarding any country that is small in both area and population. Year of changeover is listed where applicable.
Countries and areas driving on the left
- Anguilla (United Kingdom)
- Antigua and Barbuda
- Bermuda (United Kingdom)
- Cayman Islands (United Kingdom)
- Christmas Island (Australia)
- Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia)
- Cook Islands (New Zealand)
- East Timor or Timor-Leste (drove on right 1928 -1976)
- Falkland Islands (United Kingdom)
- Guernsey (Channel Islands, cars are not allowed on the islands of Sark and Herm)
- Hong Kong (China itself drives on the right)
- Isle of Man (United Kingdom)
- Japan (Okinawa drove on right 1945-1977)
- Jersey (Channel Islands)
- Macau (China itself drives on the right)
- Montserrat (United Kingdom)
- Namibia (1918)
- Nauru (1918)
- New Zealand
- Niue (New Zealand)
- Norfolk Island (Australia)
- Papua New Guinea
- Pitcairn Islands (United Kingdom)
- Saint Helena (United Kingdom)
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Saint Lucia
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
- Solomon Islands
- Somaliland (northwest of Somalia seeking independence)
- South Africa
- Sri Lanka
- Tokelau (New Zealand)
- Trinidad and Tobago
- Turks and Caicos Islands (United Kingdom)
- United Kingdom
- British Virgin Islands (United Kingdom)
- U.S. Virgin Islands (the United States itself drives on the right)
Countries and areas driving on the right
- Åland Islands (Finland)
- American Samoa (United States)
- Angola (1928)
- Aruba (Netherlands)
- Austria (1936)
- Bahrain (1968)
- Belize (1961)
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- British Indian Ocean Territory (1960s?- the United Kingdom itself drives on the left)
- Burkina Faso
- Cameroon (Former British Cameroon 1961)
- Canada (British Columbia and Maritime provinces during 1920s, Newfoundland 1947)
- Cape Verde (1928)
- Central African Republic
- China, mainland (southern provinces 1946)
- Congo, Republic
- Congo, Democratic Republic
- Costa Rica
- Côte d'Ivoire
- Czech Republic (1938)
- Dominican Republic
- El Salvador
- Equatorial Guinea
- Eritrea (1964)
- Ethiopia (1964)
- Faroe Islands (Denmark)
- French Guiana (France)
- French Polynesia (France)
- Gambia (1966)
- Ghana (1974)
- Gibraltar (1929 - the United Kingdom itself drives on the left)
- Greenland (Denmark)
- Guadeloupe (France)
- Guam (United States)
- Guinea-Bissau (1928)
- Holy See (Vatican City State)
- Hungary (1940)
- Iceland (1968)
- Iran, Islamic Republic of
- Italy (change between 1890s and 1920s)
- Korea, Democratic People's Republic of (1946)
- Korea, Republic of (1946)
- Lao People's Democratic Republic
- Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
- Macedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of
- Marshall Islands
- Martinique (France)
- Mayotte (France)
- Micronesia, Federated States of
- Midway Atoll (United States)
- Myanmar (1970)
- Netherlands Antilles (Netherlands)
- New Caledonia (France)
- Nigeria (1972)
- Northern Mariana Islands (United States)
- Philippines (1946) (Will drive on the left 2007)
- Portugal (1928)
- Puerto Rico (United States)
- Réunion (France)
- Russian Federation
- Saint Pierre and Miquelon (France)
- Samoa (mid-1990s?)
- San Marino
- São Tomé and Príncipe (1928)
- Saudi Arabia
- Serbia and Montenegro
- Sierra Leone (1971)
- Slovakia (1938)
- Somalia (1970s? except Somaliland)
- Sudan (1973)
- Svalbard (Norway)
- Sweden (1967)
- Syrian Arab Republic
- Taiwan (Republic of China) (1946)
- United Arab Emirates
- United States
- Viet Nam
- Wake Island (United States)
- Wallis and Futuna (France)
- Western Sahara (occupied by Morocco)
- Yemen (South Yemen in 1977)
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