Switching conventions

Economists commonly cite driving on the right (left) hand side of the road as an example of a beneficial social convention. The equilibrium is arbitrary, provided that everyone agrees to drive on the proper side.

I was surprised to learn how recently some of these road conventions have solidified. Consider the following:

1. Seventeen percent of the world’s area drives on the left. This amounts to about thirty-two percent of the population, it includes India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Japan and Bangladesh.

2. Originally Quebec and Ontario drove on the right and the rest of Canada on the left. The prairie provinces, when settled, drove on the right but British Columbia did not. Canada started a move toward universal right-side driving in the 1920s. Newfoundland and Labrador were the laggards, not switching until 1947, shortly before they joined the confederation.

3. A 1903 Baedeker Guide wrote the following:”The rule of the road varies in different parts of Italy. In Rome and its vicinity the rule is the same as in England i.e. keep to the left in meeting, to the right in overtaking vehicles. In most other districts, however, this rule is reversed.”

4. Most of Austria drove on the left until the Anschluss of 1938. Hitler also made Czechslovakia and Hungary drive on the right.

5. The Falkland Islands drove on the right during the brief Argentinian occupation of 1982.

6. Myanmar (Burma) switched to right-side driving as part of a move to consciously repudiate its British colonial heritage. Panama changed in 1943, largely because the Pan American Highway opened up.

7. Recent switches to the right include China, Taiwan, and the Koreas (1946), Belize (1961), Ethiopia (1964), Iceland (1968), Nigeria (1972), Ghana (1974), and South Yemen (1977).

8. Island nations are less likely to switch to right-side driving, or more likely to switch later.

From Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms, and Cultures, by Chris McManus.

My take: Switching is easier and more common than you might have thought. In the meantime, I’m still waiting for England, New Zealand, and Australia to adopt consistent rules as to who has the right-of-way when entering a roundabout.


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