Why Do We Still Drive on the Left?

Written by | Quick Reads

On Page 3 of Noel Botham’s The Best Book of the Useless Information Ever, he writes that “In Kenya they don’t drive on the right or on the left of the street in particular, just on whichever side is smoother.”

I don’t know anyone who would drive into a pothole if the other side was clear. But Kenya drives on the left, like a minority of countries in the world, and this may soon be a problem.

Picture this.

Once the 505-kilometer Isiolo-Moyale highway is complete, you will drive the entire distance on the left. If you want to cross to the Ethiopian side for the 784.2 km journey to Addis Ababa, you will need to switch sides and drive on the right.

Then on the way back you will reverse back again. On at least one of those stretches, your steering wheel will feel like it’s on the wrong side.

The road sign for Confusion.
The road sign for Confusion.

This wasn’t really a problem when the Isiolo-Moyale Road was regarded “the most dangerous road in Africa.” There wasn’t enough traffic, and there was no actual road to speak of. Then there were the bandits who gave you something more important to worry about. But if you’ve seen how smooth that road is, then you know it’s only a matter of time before traffic to Ethiopia increases.

It’s not just on that side. On the other, where the Sirari Corridor which links Tanzania and South Sudan through Kenya passes, is a similar problem. South Sudan also drives on the right. Both the countries LAPSSET wants to get to drive on the opposite side, what to us is “the wrong side.”

Since it’s a transport project (the T in the acronym means just that), this logistical problem is important. Kenya already makes for 25 percent of South Sudan’s total inflows, and this will increase.

Even now, truck drivers going to Kigali have to switch sides at the Uganda-Rwanda border.

Rwanda has already conducted at least one inconclusive study on whether it should switch to the left to conform with her East African neighbors.

How to correctly drive a Left-Hand Drive car, illustrated.
How to correctly drive a Left-Hand Drive car, illustrated. (Side note, changing signals may be a bit of a problem).

See here’s the thing.

Of the 54 countries on this continent, only 13 of them drive on the left. All 13 are on the lower end of the continent, starting with Kenya and going all the way to South Africa. Except for Rwanda, Burundi, and the DRC which drive on the right. There’s a pattern here, most of the 35 percent of countries in the world that still drive on the left are former British colonies, except for a few such as Japan.

In Africa, all except Mozambique were at some point under the British chokehold. Mozambique was part of Portugal’s empire; Portugal used to drive on the left, then it felt left behind and in 1928, forced everyone to switch sides. Mozambique only survived the side-switching because it was surrounded by left-driving British weirdos.

The first car in Kenya, the 1903 De Dion Bouton model, landed in Kenya on a steamship in December 1903. There was only one road in Kenya at the time, stretching from Mombasa to Mumias.

That matters a lot actually, because cross-border conformity is a good thing. It means that when you cross the border you have bigger things to worry about rather than which side to drive on. Like trade and deals, and where the party street is. We haven’t been motivated to switch sides because our primary trading partners, Uganda and Tanzania, are left-siders like us.

That little dot up there is our former boss, Britain. The blue dots in South America are Guyana and Suriname. Screengrab from (Source).
That little dot up there is our former boss, Britain. The blue dots in South America are Guyana and Suriname. Screengrab from (Source).

The only reason we stay on this side of the street, when it doesn’t have potholes, is because the British were once a province of the Roman Empire. In those feudal societies where you carried a blade to a date, and cutting each other down was a sport, you needed to have your right hand free.

Most people are right handed, so the blade was placed on the left, freeing up your hand to punch the other guy first, and also to make it easier to get to it. This meant it made more sense to walk on the left, and even to march on that side on your way to chop the other side’s patriots. In 1300 AD Pope Boniface VIII decreed that all Rome-bound pilgrims should keep left.

Then in the 1700s, several societies started hauling big wagons pulled by teams of horses. The driver sat on the rear left horse to see all the horses, and whip them with his right hand. If he drove them on the left, there was a real possibility he would end up whipping someone else’s horse or being distracted by a gorgeous woman walking down the street. So in America and France, staying on the right became the cool thing to do. (The Americans might also have done it for the same reason they lost the “u” and unnecessarily decided to have their own English).

Then Napoleon, like all good conquerors, demanded that the countries he steamrolled over drive like the French. It’s why the Belgians do it; and why Britain and Portugal, the two countries he couldn’t get, stayed on the left.

Hitler did it too, when he marched into Austria and ordered they drive on the right.

If things stay as they are, Kenya and her right-hand driving neighbors will need to build intersecting roads, crossover bridges, and coordinate traffic lights and signposts at border points.

Countries switch the side they drive on because conformity where masses of human beings are involved, is safety and sanity. Consider Sweden’s motivation for switching to the right in 1967. There are few official manned border points between Sweden and her neighbors who all drove on the right side.

This meant that in most cases, there was nothing to tell the driver he had just crossed country borders. They had to know where one country started and the other ended, and switch sides. You didn’t just have to be a driver, you had to be a surveyor too.

It happened to Nigeria and Ghana too, which were former British colonies that decided to switch to driving on the right. Nigeria did it in 1972 and then, in classical fashion of not wanting to be outdone by their West African rivals, Ghana followed two years later. The rest of the region was Franchophone, mostly, and you know the French, they drive on the right.

Also, they forced everyone else around them to.

Here’s a good example: Rwanda drives on the right because they were colonized by the Belgians who drive on that side because the French forced them to. It’s also why I haven’t even mentioned Egypt, which the British found on the right because of, well, you guessed it right, the French!

In the short time vehicles have been revving through human history, only three countries have moved from switching from right to left. These are East Timor (1975), Okinawa (1978) and Samoa (2009). The main reason for Samoa was to import cheap cars from Australia, New Zealand and Japan, all which drive on the left.

The steering wheel-side element is critical, since the norm is for drivers to seat on the side of the centerline. In left-driving countries, the steering wheel is on the right, and vice versa. In several countries, including Rwanda and the DRC, importing right-hand side cars is prohibited.

Other countries require that the car have a marking at the back to show which side the steering wheel is on. It’s why you will see LHD or RHD at the back of some cars. You might not notice this because we like Japanese cars, which are built in a country that drives on the left like us.

We also like German ones, and others from countries that drive on the right, but the ‘small’ cultural problem is solved by the promise of money. The idea being, if you want a car and the company makes it mainly for right-side driving countries, and you can afford it, whether individually or as a collective, then its as easy as holding a mirror to the front seat console and switching things to the other side.

Well, maybe not that easy, but you get the point.

As cross-border trade grows, and it becomes easier for Kenya to trade with countries to the North, our left-side driving will be a problem. The road transport theme in LAPSSET will suffer significantly because the countries we are building roads to had different colonial masters.

Most passenger trains in the world keep to the left.

Even Somalia, by the way, drives on the right. Which means we can’t even go to war properly because we are driving on the wrong side. How do you shoot at the other side’s patriots if you are both on the same side?

If the temptation of more trade, less accidents, and less cursing on the road, is not enough, there’s another possibility.

The ruler of Myanmar in 1970, General Ne Win, is said to have been advised to switch to the right by a wizard. Or the idea came to him in a dream, the Burmese can’t agree. Either way, he declared the switch be done immediately. That’s why, to this day, Myanmar has road signs facing the wrong way.

To be fair he also did order that all Burmese currency be divisible by nine (because nine was his lucky number), so we might not want to wait for that.

Owaahh, 2016.

One story is good,

till Another is told.

Last modified: February 18, 2023

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