The Policy Arguments for and Against Driving on the Right Side of the Road

Generations of law professors have always insisted that there is some class of rules where the particular content of the law is less important than that we have some clear answer to a question. The paradigmatic example is a rule specifying which side of the road one ought to drive on. The decision, so the argument goes, is entirely arbitrary so long as we all pick a side.

Not so it would seem.

The country of Samoa (not to be confused with the U.S. territory American Samoa) is about the switch from driving on the right side of the road to driving on the left side of the road, reports the WSJ.  Somoa is much closer to New Zealand and Australia than to the United States.  Apparently over 100,000 Samoan expats live in both countries and they want to be able to send their old cars home to relatives in the islands.  By switching sides, the government hopes to facilitate the flow of cheaper, hand-me-down cars into the country.  Interestingly, however, the article argues that the original American choice to drive on the right hand side was not as arbitrary as the law profs would have us believe:

American drivers of horse-drawn carriages tended to ride their horses, or walk alongside them, on the left-hand side of their vehicles so they could wield whips with their right hands. That made it necessary to lead carriages down the right side of the road so drivers could be nearer the center of the street.

The article doesn’t explain why it is that the Brits opted for the left hand side.  Maybe they are all left handed, or perhaps they learned to use a whip with their right hand as part of some sort of public school hazing ritual.  Isn’t there something in a Dickens novel about that?

Perhaps one can always find policy rationales for the substantive content of rules after all.

(ht: Moin Yahya of the University of Alberta Law School)

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9 Responses

  1. alkali says:

    I don’t think anyone ever suggested that the side-of-the-road issue was completely a matter of arbitrary choice: there is a lock-in effect once you’ve chosen a side, and there are network effects (as this story illustrates).

  2. krs says:

    I agree with alkali.

    There may be reasons why the right side of the road is a slightly better choice than the left side, but I think it’s beyond legitimate dispute that having a clear choice is much more important than which side is chosen.

    If someone drove on the left side of the road in the US and caused a collision, there would be nearly zero sympathy for any argument that person might later make about the benefits of driving on the left side of the road.

    The right side isn’t a purely arbitrary choice, but it’s close enough to arbitrary to illustrate the point.

  3. This remains a nice illustration of a social convention, which, as suggested above, can hardly be thought purely arbitrary, at least insofar as it amounts to the solution of a coordination problem. Furthermore, this would seem to illustrate how a de facto convention acquires normative status and when this occurs, a decision to change the convention is not as underdetermined as its institution in the first instance.

  4. Steve M. says:

    I’ve read that countries with left-side driving have somewhat fewer accidents because most people are right-eye dominant, and thus slightly better at avoiding accidents when driving on the left.

    My understanding is that the UK went with left-side driving because the old pre-automobile rules required riders and cart-drivers to ride on the left. I believe that riding the horse on your left was preferred because it left the right hand free, both for greeting riders on the opposite side of the road and, if necessary, for sword-swinging. (And something like 90% of people are right-handed, right?) You don’t want your strong hand on the reins, you want it available for defense.

    Didn’t Napoleon make a habit of changing the law in countries he conquered to make people drive (or ride) on the right?

  5. A.J. Sutter says:

    The WSJ article omits to mention the case of Okinawa: in 1978, that island switched from right-hand to left-hand driving when Japan recovered it from the American occupier.

    The reasons Japan chose a left-hand rule seem more obscure. Travelers’ reports from the 17th & 18th centuries note that samurai walked on the left for the sword-swinging reasons Steve M. suggests. On highways this rule seemed to have applied to everyone, by virtue of an Edo bakufu (military government) edict. But it seems left-hand traffic didn’t necessarily apply to most of the population while on local roads.

    Some people (Brits, at least) think the modern habit was due to an historical accident, that Japan’s first railway was built with English technical assistance during the 1870s; but if so, it took a while for the convention to be extended to roadways. E.g., during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the army traveled on the right. Apparently traffic was quite chaotic during the early years of automobile traffic, and many people were injured. I read that for this reason, and due to increasing congestion from cars and bicycles, in 1906 Tokyo police began to enforce the old Edo convention of left-hand pedestrian traffic, and that in 1924 Japan passed a law stipulating left-hand travel for cars.

    In this light, I’m not sure I know how to interpret your comment about “find[ing] policy rationales for the substantive content of rules after all.” In particular, I’m not sure how to distinguish what’s “substantive,” and what’s “policy,” from what’s not.

    In 1920s Japan, the experience seems to have been (a) perceived need to choose some convention so that fewer people get killed or injured, and (b) some historical experience with left-hand traffic. So is the substantive part of the Japanese rule the choice of some side, or the choice of the left side?

    In the former case, I’d agree with your statement, but I sense that this is a weaker point than the one you were trying to make, since it doesn’t address the arbitrariness of the choice. In the latter case, then what exactly is the policy? to choose one of several customs with which there has been some historical experience, viz. a custom that applied to the highest stratum of society 60 years earlier? or to railways, not to road traffic? These too have a tinge of the arbitrary. Yet contemporary sources suggest the historical experience had something to do with the choice. Maybe law profs should look beyond their Manichean dichotomy of “policy” vs. “arbitrariness” and include such things as history, custom or even, especially apt for this context, “path-dependency”.

  6. Anon says:

    It’s funny that most of Thomas Schelling’s major intellectual contributions somehow became attributed to law professors.

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    Anon, law profs might not have made the original contribution (if by that you mean the Manichean dichotomy etc.), but Nate’s original post suggests that they may be propagating it.

  8. Michael, UK says:

    It doesn’t surprise me that somewhere like Samoa has opted to change sides as it was a decision purely based on economic reasons. Logic would suggest that since most of the planet is right-handed, it’s easier to hold an object (steering wheel) with your right hand and control the fiddly objects (gear stick) with your left hand.

    Like opening a jam jar, you hold with your right and unscrew with your left. Obviously it’s not as simple as that, but from a physical perspective, there’s no justification for driving on the right side of the road.

  9. Myrtone says:

    “I’ve read that countries with left-side driving have somewhat fewer accidents because most people are right-eye dominant, and thus slightly better at avoiding accidents when driving on the left.”

    This would mean that trains are better off keeping to the right, because the most important thing when driving a train is to keep an eye on signs and signals usually located on the nearside.

    Although mainland Europe has standardised on driving on the right hand side of the road, trains keep left in some continental countries such as France and Belguim. But in all left side driving countries except Indonesia, trains also tend to keep left, are they any historical reasons for this.

    It is well known that Sweden switched sides in 1967, fitting in with the rest of the continent but primary reason for doing so was because most cars there were left hand drive and it was thought it would reduce head on collisions on two lane highways. This was in turn because their first cars were left hand drive imports (which could have had something to do with shard land borders with right side driving countries) and local carmakers built their cars left hand drive to conform. Trains in Sweden still keep left.

    “Didn’t Napoleon make a habit of changing the law in countries he conquered to make people drive (or ride) on the right?”

    I would guess so.