Cars come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. However, the one thing you might expect to remain standard is where the driver should sit. It can be confusing when the driver’s side isn’t always the same, especially when you’re moving from one country to another.
The driver’s side can be left or right. In countries where cars drive on the right-hand side of the road, the driver sits on the left side of the vehicle. Conversely, where cars drive on the left, drivers sit on the car’s right-hand side. However, there are a few exceptions due to practical reasons.
Different countries follow different traffic rules, which influences which side of the car a driver should sit. This article will expand on the location of the driver’s side, why it isn’t always the same, and how we ended up with left and right-hand driving in the first place.
To understand why the driver’s side can be either left or right, keep in mind that there’s a relationship between which side of the car the driver sits in and which side of the road cars drive on. Generally, if a car has the driver’s seat on the left, it is a left-hand drive. Similarly, a right-hand drive car has the driver’s side on the right.
Here’s where it gets tricky. All countries fall under one of two existing traffic systems that determine which side of the road cars should drive.
If the general rule is that cars should drive on the left side of the road, that system is called left-hand traffic (LHT). In left-hand traffic, drivers sit on the right side of the car, meaning it’s a right-hand drive.
Likewise, a system where vehicles drive on the right side of the road is called right-hand traffic (RHT). In this case, the driver sits on the left side of the vehicle, making it a left-hand drive.
Despite the above mentioned rules, it’s possible to spot a left-hand drive on a left-hand traffic system occasionally, or a right-hand drive dashing along on a right-hand traffic road. If you see this yourself and think of reporting the person to the authorities, think again.
In most countries, using a ‘wrong-hand’ car is legal, but only if the vehicle meets specific requirements and goes through a special approval process. Some countries even require you to have a special permit to import one.
A wrong-hand car usually needs to undergo alterations to make it safer and more suitable to drive in a “wrong” traffic system. Countries with different traffic systems bordering each other have to invest heavily in constructing special interchanges. Doing this allows drivers to switch from one traffic system to another when crossing the border.
In other words, it may be cheaper to learn how to drive in a country with different traffic rules than to go through the trouble of obtaining a permit for a “wrong-hand” car.
Over the last hundred years, the modern-day distribution of traffic flow worldwide has constantly evolved. Since the 1900s, with the increasingly widespread use of the automobile, countries have been adjusting and readjusting their traffic rules according to what works best for them.
At present, about 90% of global roads follow right-hand traffic. This translates to 66% of people who drive on the right-hand side of the road. To date, 163 countries and territories adhere to right-hand traffic, making left-hand drive cars the standard in these areas.
However, some of these countries allow licensed operators to use special purpose vehicles that are right-hand drive. For example, tasks such as postal delivery, garbage collection, and parking enforcement are easier with a right-hand drive in a right-hand traffic system. Because these jobs require the driver to come in and out of the vehicle, having the driver sit on the side closest to the curb means they will always exit onto the sidewalk, which is safer.
Only 35% of people around the world drive on the left side of the road, meaning right-hand drive vehicles are more common in such regions. The majority of nations and territories that adhere to left-hand traffic are former colonies of Britain — one of the few places in Europe that adopts left-hand traffic.
Some right-hand traffic countries have a small number of left-hand traffic streets, which are usually developed for specific purposes. For example, in Saint Petersburg in Russia, left-hand traffic streets are built to reduce traffic on other roads.
Other than the location of the driver’s seat, there are no differences between left and right-hand driving. Even the order of the driver’s pedals (clutch, brake, and gas) remains the same. Unless you’re driving a wrong-hand car, the driver’s position is always closest to the side of oncoming traffic.
Finding the best position for the driver’s seat has been a long process of trial and error. For example, most American cars produced before 1910 were right-hand drives, even though American roads at the time followed the right-hand traffic rule.
Henry Ford (the founder of the automobile manufacturer Ford Motor Company) pioneered left-hand drive cars in the United States with the 1908 Model T. His reason for placing the driver’s side on the left was that, if the steering wheel was closer to the center of the road, a driver could better see the movement of other cars, which made it easier to avoid danger.
Ford also reasoned that passengers could safely exit onto a curb if the passenger side were on the right. This prevented the passenger from having to walk around the car to get to the sidewalk. Seeing the popularity of the Model T, other manufacturers followed suit, putting the driver’s side on the left for the American automobile market.
Prior to the pre-automobile era, horseless carriages were one of the primary forms of transport. These carriages were controlled by a front lever located in the middle of the floor. Operating the lever required a lot of strength, and because right-handedness was more common, the driver would usually sit on the left and control the lever with his right hand.
Over time, the levers were replaced with steering wheels. That created another problem: Where should the steering wheel be placed?
The steering wheel was initially placed on the side closer to the edge of the road so drivers could easily step out of the carriage onto the sidewalk. As a result, right-hand steering wheels were made for right-hand traffic and left-hand steering for left-hand traffic.
As the roads became busier with more and more cars, it became clear that drivers needed to see oncoming traffic, so the steering wheel was placed on the opposite side. By 1915, the automobile industry had largely replaced the horseless carriage, and by the 1920s, the majority of cars had the driver’s seat on the side of oncoming traffic.
The driver’s side in a vehicle depends on the prevailing traffic system. As a general rule, the driver always sits on the side closest to oncoming traffic. In countries where traffic keeps right, the driver sits on the left side of the vehicle. Likewise, where cars keep to the left, drivers sit on the right.
Driving a wrong-hand vehicle isn’t illegal. However, wrong-hand cars are subject to more stringent registration processes. Some require tweaking to make them suitable to drive in an unconventional traffic system. There is no difference between left and right-hand driving other than the driver’s side.
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