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.
Missing image
Red = drive on right
Blue = drive on left

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 hand 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 hand 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 practice of travelling on the left side of the road arose from the prevalence of right-handedness. The need to be ready for self-defence on rural roads inclined most horse-riders to keep to their left when encountering oncoming wayfarers, so as to be able to deploy a sword or other hand-weapon more swiftly and effectively should the need arise. Also, those on foot and in charge of horse-drawn vehicles would more usually hold the animals' heads with their right hand, and thus walk along the lefthand side of the road.

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

Aggregating regions where feasible, and omitting only those territories that are very small both in area and in population:

  • Africa: south and southeast (including Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Somaliland, but not Madagascar or Somalia)
  • Americas: Bermuda, the islands of the Caribbean (except Martinique, Guadeloupe, Netherlands Antilles, Aruba, Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic), the Falkland Islands, Guyana, Suriname
  • Asia: Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, South Asia (except Afghanistan), South East Asia (except Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam, )
  • Europe: Cyprus, Ireland, Malta, the United Kingdom (plus the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man)
  • Oceania: all (except Samoa, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna)

Changing sides

There are still many instances of traffic having to change sides at border crossings, such as at those between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Laos and Thailand, Sudan and Uganda.

Missing image
Change of traffic directions at the Laos-Thai border

Some countries have changed the side of the road on which their motorists drive 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 all 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, traffic continues 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.

Foreign occupation

Missing image
Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, in 1982. Arrows painted on the roads by Argentine forces directed islanders to drive on the right

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 (details) 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 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.

China (mainland)

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. See Rules of the road in the People's Republic of China for the expanded article.


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 (


Stockholm on Dagen H
Stockholm on Dagen H

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. One argument for this was that is was necessary to keep an eye on the edge of the road, something that was important on the narrow roads in use back then. 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 its original position 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 hand 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 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.

U.S. State-specific practices

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 and those imported from Asia 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 exotic or a status symbol. This even applies to British brands (although cars for the British market have the steering wheel on the right), in part because many have been imported via the US. However, some US manufacturers have made RHD models for the Japanese market, though with limited success; and as continental European brands become more popular, the preference is increasingly for RHD models.

Myanmar (Burma)

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.

However, many used vehicles exported from Japan to countries like Russia and Peru are already converted to LHD.

In West Africa, Ghana and Gambia have also banned RHD vehicles.


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.

Highway code

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).

Countries and areas driving on the right

  1. Afghanistan
  2. Åland Islands (Finland)
  3. Albania
  4. Algeria
  5. American Samoa (U.S.)
  6. Andorra
  7. Angola (1928)
  8. Argentina
  9. Armenia
  10. Aruba (Netherlands)
  11. Austria (1936)
  12. Azerbaijan
  13. Bahrain (1968)
  14. Belarus
  15. Belgium
  16. Belize (1961)
  17. Benin
  18. Bolivia
  19. Bosnia and Herzegovina
  20. Brazil
  21. British Indian Ocean Territory
  22. Burkina Faso
  23. Burundi
  24. Cambodia
  25. Cameroon (1961)
  26. Canada
  27. Cape Verde (1928)
  28. Central African Republic
  29. Chad
  30. Chile
  31. China, mainland
  32. Colombia
  33. Comoros
  34. Congo, Republic
  35. Congo DR
  36. Costa Rica
  37. Côte d'Ivoire
  38. Croatia
  39. Cuba
  40. Czech Republic (1939), details
  41. Denmark
  42. Djibouti
  1. Dominican Rep.
  2. Ecuador
  3. Egypt
  4. El Salvador
  5. Equatorial Guinea
  6. Eritrea (1964)
  7. Estonia
  8. Ethiopia (1964)
  9. Faroe Islands
  10. Finland
  11. France
  12. French Guiana
  13. French Polynesia
  14. Gabon
  15. Gambia (1966)
  16. Georgia
  17. Germany
  18. Ghana (1974)
  19. Gibraltar (1929)
  20. Greece
  21. Greenland
  22. Guadeloupe
  23. Guam (U.S.)
  24. Guatemala
  25. Guinea
  26. Guinea-Bissau
  27. Haiti
  28. Vatican City
  29. Honduras
  30. Hungary (1940)
  31. Iceland (1968)
  32. Iran
  33. Iraq
  34. Israel
  35. Italy
  36. Jordan
  37. Kazakhstan
  38. Korea DPR
  39. Korea (1946)
  40. Kuwait
  41. Kyrgyzstan
  1. Lao
  2. Latvia
  3. Lebanon
  4. Liberia
  5. Libya
  6. Liechtenstein
  7. Lithuania
  8. Luxembourg
  9. Macedonia
  10. Madagascar
  11. Mali
  12. Marshall Islands
  13. Martinique (France)
  14. Mauritania
  15. Mayotte (France)
  16. Mexico
  17. Micronesia
  18. Midway Atoll (US)
  19. Moldova
  20. Monaco
  21. Mongolia
  22. Morocco
  23. Myanmar (1970)
  24. Netherlands
  25. Netherlands Antilles
  26. New Caledonia
  27. Nicaragua
  28. Niger
  29. Nigeria (1972)
  30. Northern Mariana Isls (U.S.)
  31. Norway
  32. Oman
  33. Palau
  34. Panama
  35. Paraguay
  36. Peru
  37. Philippines (1946)
  38. Poland
  39. Portugal (1928)
  40. Puerto Rico (U.S.)
  1. Qatar
  2. Réunion (France)
  3. Romania
  4. Russian Federation
  5. Rwanda
  6. Saint Pierre and Miquelon
  7. Samoa (mid-1990s?)
  8. San Marino
  9. São Tomé and Príncipe (1928)
  10. Saudi Arabia
  11. Senegal
  12. Serbia and Montenegro
  13. Sierra Leone (1971)
  14. Slovakia (1939 - 41, details)
  15. Slovenia
  16. Somalia
  17. Spain
  18. Sudan (1973)
  19. Svalbard (Norway)
  20. Sweden (1967)
  21. Switzerland
  22. Syrian Arab Republic
  23. Taiwan (1946)
  24. Tajikistan
  25. Togo
  26. Tunisia
  27. Turkey
  28. Turkmenistan
  29. Ukraine
  30. United Arab Emirates
  31. United States
  32. Uruguay
  33. Uzbekistan
  34. Vanuatu
  35. Venezuela
  36. Viet Nam
  37. Wake Island (U.S.)
  38. Wallis and Futuna (France)
  39. Western Sahara
  40. Yemen

(164 areas)

Countries and areas driving on the left

  1. Anguilla (United Kingdom)
  2. Antigua and Barbuda
  3. Australia
  4. Bahamas
  5. Bangladesh
  6. Barbados
  7. Bermuda (United Kingdom)
  8. Bhutan
  9. Botswana
  10. Brunei
  11. Cayman Islands (United Kingdom)
  12. Christmas Island (Australia)
  13. Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia)
  14. Cook Islands (New Zealand)
  15. Cyprus
  16. Dominica
  17. East Timor (drove on right 1928 -1976)
  18. Falkland Islands (United Kingdom)
  19. Fiji
  20. Grenada
  21. Guernsey (Channel Islands
  22. Guyana
  23. Hong Kong (China drives on the right
  24. India
  25. Indonesia
  1. Ireland
  2. Isle of Man (United Kingdom)
  3. Jamaica
  4. Japan (Okinawa used not to)
  5. Jersey (Channel Islands)
  6. Kenya
  7. Kiribati
  8. Lesotho
  9. Macau (China drives on the right)
  10. Malawi
  11. Malaysia
  12. Maldives
  13. Malta
  14. Mauritius
  15. Montserrat (UK)
  16. Mozambique
  17. Namibia (1918)
  18. Nauru (1918)
  19. Nepal
  20. New Zealand
  21. Niue (New Zealand)
  22. Norfolk Island (Australia)
  23. Pakistan
  24. Papua New Guinea
  25. Pitcairn Islands (UK)
  1. Saint Helena (UK)
  2. Saint Kitts and Nevis
  3. Saint Lucia
  4. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  5. Seychelles
  6. Singapore
  7. Solomon Islands
  8. Somaliland
  9. South Africa
  10. Sri Lanka
  11. Suriname
  12. Swaziland
  13. Tanzania
  14. Thailand
  15. Tokelau (New Zealand)
  16. Tonga
  17. Trinidad and Tobago
  18. Turks and Caicos Islands (United Kingdom)
  19. Tuvalu
  20. Uganda
  21. United Kingdom
  22. British Virgin Islands (United Kingdom)
  23. US Virgin Ils. (US drives on the right)
  24. Zambia
  25. Zimbabwe

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