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June 29, 2010 6:40 PM   Subscribe

Why Some Countries Drive on the Right and Some Countries Drive on the Left. Primarily throughout history people used the “keep-left” rule. It has only been very recently that the world has predominately switched to the “keep-right” rule.
posted by Obscure Reference (78 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very interesting.

If you're on a bike or motorcycle, and you swerve away from traffic or a hazard in the road, most people would want to fall on their left arm.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 6:47 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fascinating indeed but oh so many grammatical errors.
posted by mykescipark at 6:49 PM on June 29, 2010


And eponysterical.
posted by wierdo at 6:54 PM on June 29, 2010


Virtually all major train systems use a keep-left rule. I've heard this is because British companies invested so heavily in railway systems around the world and just liked keeping things the way they are back home.
posted by jontyjago at 6:55 PM on June 29, 2010


If only people could work it out on escalators...
posted by pompomtom at 6:57 PM on June 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


pompomtom, I believe the protocol on escalators is: upwards traffic on the upwards-moving escalators, regardless of whether they are left or right of the downwards-moving escalators.

HTH.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:05 PM on June 29, 2010 [6 favorites]


Here's a map which displays some of the changes which have taken place over time.
posted by gman at 7:06 PM on June 29, 2010


"Hong Kong drives on the left side of the road, mainland China on the right. So how do you prevent crashes when driving between them?"
posted by kirkaracha at 7:17 PM on June 29, 2010 [8 favorites]


Historians then believe the keep-left rule was adopted because, on a horse, if you were right handed and you met some unsavory company on the road, you could draw your weapon, typically attached to your left side, with your right hand and bring it to bear quickly against the person who is going the opposite way of you on your right; all the while, controlling the reigns with your left hand.
How can you draw a weapon on your left side with your right hand without using your left hand? I'm assuming this is a sword. Don't you have to steady the scabbard with your left hand to draw the sword with your right?
posted by kirkaracha at 7:17 PM on June 29, 2010


Holy coincidence, Batman, I was looking at that yesterday, for entirely different reasons (I wanted to check which side Ireland drove on, and started wiki-digging from there)
posted by qvantamon at 7:20 PM on June 29, 2010


predominately

It is thought the reason behind this is that most people’s right eye is their dominate eye.


*rips out eye*
posted by desjardins at 7:21 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Hong Kong drives on the left side of the road, mainland China on the right. So how do you prevent crashes when driving between them?"

You put a huge mirror in the middle of the road.
posted by qvantamon at 7:22 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is a bit of a just-so story.

The real fact is that we don't really know -- it appears to be a convention that stuck, and then was exported to other places.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:23 PM on June 29, 2010


How can you draw a weapon on your left side with your right hand without using your left hand? I'm assuming this is a sword. Don't you have to steady the scabbard with your left hand to draw the sword with your right?

You know... reach across your body with your right hand, grab the sword-hilt, pull it from the scabbard, and start chopping. The scabbard would be held in place by whatever's attached it to your body - steadying it seems unnecessary.

IANAHorsebackSwordsman, so please everyone get on my case if I'm wrong.

Holy coincidence, Batman, I was looking at that yesterday, for entirely different reasons (I wanted to check which side Ireland drove on, and started wiki-digging from there)

Confirmation bias.

If only people could work it out on escalators...

Where I live, we've all come to a compromise: stand in the middle of the damned things and irritate everyone behind you. Bonus points if it's a long, slow travelator/ escalator so everyone behind you is either trapped for the duration, or they beat you senseless so they can get a move on.
posted by WalterMitty at 7:26 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do people tend to walk on the same side they drive on? I seem to notice Indians and Japanese walking directly towards me on the sidewalk (i.e. their left side), but this may be confirmation bias.
posted by desjardins at 7:29 PM on June 29, 2010


Some countries drive like this...
Other countries drive like this... (amirite?)
posted by symbioid at 7:30 PM on June 29, 2010


If only people could work it out on escalators...

Most places I've been on escalators in the US have a convention (written?) of standers on the right, movers on the left. If you're in an airport rushing to your gate, it's really helpful to be able to cruise along on escalators (and those people movers). When I was in Asia recently, no one walks on these things. Walls of people in front, blocking the whole thing. Even if you could get one person to step to the right, you'd just keep walking into them. Kinda funny (or annoying, if you're in a hurry).
posted by JenMarie at 7:35 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


And whoever classified the US as a "keep-right" country never tried to drive in an American freeway. Germany is a "keep-right" country. America is a "keep-on-the-left-lane-driving-10mph-under-the-damn-speed-limit" country.
posted by qvantamon at 7:37 PM on June 29, 2010 [13 favorites]


Virtually all major train systems use a keep-left rule.

I don't think this is true. Wikipedia lists quite a few countries whose trains drive on the right, including a lot of the well-developed European systems (Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, etc). But yeah, it was a bit surprising to me to see how many cars-on-the-right countries drive their trains on the left.
posted by av123 at 7:37 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do people tend to walk on the same side they drive on? I seem to notice Indians and Japanese walking directly towards me on the sidewalk (i.e. their left side), but this may be confirmation bias.

Just as I would drive on the right in the US, I also learned to walk on the right when I was there. It seemed to make a difference.
posted by crossoverman at 7:38 PM on June 29, 2010


I was out at a London nightclub and was too drunk to safely navigate public transportation back to my hotel, so I caught a taxi. I remember screaming at the driver that we were on the wrong side of the road.
posted by desjardins at 7:39 PM on June 29, 2010 [9 favorites]


Oh wow, it was worth browsing through that web site just so I could discover the link to this photo.
posted by Put the kettle on at 7:40 PM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


If only people could work it out on escalators...

I gotta say, I love how militant we are about that in DC. Damn tourists...
posted by av123 at 7:50 PM on June 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Do people tend to walk on the same side they drive on? I seem to notice Indians and Japanese walking directly towards me on the sidewalk (i.e. their left side), but this may be confirmation bias.

Yes, in western countries of both sides, I've found that I'm constantly in people's way unless I'm following the driver side rule, but what you're encountering in japan may be something different - I've heard that in western countries, we pick a side to pass each other on, and communicate it to each other early via our body language and direction so we don't do that dance, while in Japan and some other places, there is more of dominance/chicken thing going on, where a person should appear oblivious and/or least likely to adjust their path to get others to subtly accommodate their path - if it looks like you will avoid or yield for people, they'll make no allowances for you and you'll have to yield.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:00 PM on June 29, 2010


Meh! I'm sat here deliberately trying to find boring things to read because I can't sleep and I thought this thread would be a dead cert.
But it's actually very interesting.
posted by Monkeymoo at 8:09 PM on June 29, 2010


Don't you have to steady the scabbard with your left hand to draw the sword with your right?

A properly-made weapon does not unnecessarily hobble its user (and risk getting them killed). So while I'm sure there were plenty of swords that did not draw properly and tied up both hands, I'm also sure that people acquiring them for more than show would vote with their dollars for technology that worked :-)

For what it's worth, a sword+scabbard I have (modern reproduction) can be reliably um... "operated" one-handed. But also consider that in many cases, the scabbard would not be fastened to the user, it would be securely attached to the saddlebags, so there would be even less play in it.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:11 PM on June 29, 2010


America is a "keep-on-the-left-lane-driving-10mph-under-the-damn-speed-limit" country.

If you think it is bad in the states, try driving around Ontario a little.
And I don't even drive :)
posted by Chuckles at 8:34 PM on June 29, 2010


I noticed that in central London, perhaps owing to its cosmopolitan nature or just to the sheer number of foreigners, the mass of people on the pavement/sidewalk will often walk on the right-hand side.
E.g., If you at look at pictures of Millenium Bridge between Tate Modern and St. Paul's you'll see most people walk on the right hand side.
posted by Flashman at 8:35 PM on June 29, 2010


America is a "keep-on-the-left-lane-driving-10mph-under-the-damn-speed-limit" country.

2x points while driving an SUV, apparently.
posted by malocchio at 8:48 PM on June 29, 2010


As a left-driving Australian, l can confirm that locals do tend to walk on the left side of the footpath here.

In regards to escalators, 'standers' generally stay to the left, too. In addition, the escalator you want is always on the left. In other words, if you're going up, the up escalator is on the left. If you're going down, down is on the left. I found the reverse to be true in American shopping centres. Several times I almost tried to go up the down escalator.
posted by Diag at 8:49 PM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I first got to Japan, it took me a bit to get used to being in cars on the "wrong" side of the road.

One time, my girlfriend and I were driving through Tokyo on one of the expressways --- or rather, I should say she was driving and I was dozing off in the passenger seat. At one point I woke up, kind of groggy and suddenly realized, to my horror, that we were driving on the wrong side of the road. I came to very quickly, saw that I was on the left hand side of the car and thought: "Oh shit, and I'm DRIVING."

Later on, describing my reaction to her family, my girlfriend claims that I made a noise "like a small cat," though that may just be a mistranslation on my part, or a complete fabrication on hers.
posted by Tiresias at 8:53 PM on June 29, 2010 [25 favorites]


I noticed that in central London, perhaps owing to its cosmopolitan nature or just to the sheer number of foreigners, the mass of people on the pavement/sidewalk will often walk on the right-hand side.

I was thinking of mentioning this, actually. I find that most people walk on the right here in the US. When I lived in London, I thought, 'But wait a minute, they drive on the left, am I supposed to walk on the left?' I tried to determine what was correct, but I never really settled on an answer. I feel like people walked on the left, right, down the middle, or wherever they damn well pleased.

But then, I have no patience for slow walkers, people who don't give me enough room, people who stop in the middle of the sidewalk &c. so maybe I was overthinking.
posted by Put the kettle on at 8:54 PM on June 29, 2010


I have no patience for slow walkers, people who don't give me enough room, people who stop in the middle of the sidewalk &c. so maybe I was overthinking.

Oh god, I've met you. Many times. During my cancer treatment, I could not move very quickly. Absolutely could not, it was physically impossible to move at any pace greater than a slow amble. Any kind of forward motion I could engage in wore me out for days to boot, or was excruciatingly painful. And since I was signed up for radiation and wasn't receiving chemo, I had most of my hair and wasn't so obviously a cancer patient. I was also in my early 30s. So of course all the assholes who think they are just so important would give me the evil eye because I was too slow and was getting in their way on the sidewalk, and I was clearly doing it just to piss them off. The sidewalk was bad enough, but during my one and only trip to the mall while sick, I thought some teenager might push me down the stairs.

Keep in mind that you have no idea why someone is walking slowly.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:14 PM on June 29, 2010 [8 favorites]


Interesting, I once knew a guy who made a mistake while he was putting a bike together and put the chain and gears on the left side. Eventually though, everything came unscrewed because of the way bikes are threaded.
posted by fuq at 9:19 PM on June 29, 2010


That flipper road seems to curve outward unnecessarily.
posted by doublehappy at 9:40 PM on June 29, 2010


That must have been a pretty fancy fucking mistake, since bikes do not have derailleur hangers on the wrong side, or the right cable stanchions for a Sturmey-Archer internal hub. So unless he sent the frame out to have new bits brazed on...
posted by unSane at 9:40 PM on June 29, 2010


Whatever the convention, don't stand two abreast on the escalator, because you annoy me when you do.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:41 PM on June 29, 2010


(nor is it possible to mount a derailleur on the wrong side, even if it had a hanger. I'm trying to imagine if it's possible to do this with a fixed gear or singlespeed freewheel bike. The SS is out because the freewheel would be going in the wrong direction, so when you tried to pedal, it would freewheel instead. I guess with a fixie it might be possible.)
posted by unSane at 9:43 PM on June 29, 2010


Whatever the convention, don't stand two abreast on the escalator, because you annoy me when you do.

It's a caning offense to not do that in Singapore.
posted by WalterMitty at 9:54 PM on June 29, 2010


This post was practically pre-Meta'd, except it's much more congenial than I expected.
posted by nevercalm at 9:55 PM on June 29, 2010


If my trip to India was any indication, the map on the linked page is wrong. Most of my taxi drivers drove on whatever damn side they wanted to drive on.
posted by jessssse at 10:00 PM on June 29, 2010


I've driven on both sides (per national regulations, mind you) and have found that it was much easier than I thought to adapt to driving on the left side after driving in the US. The hardest part was not always turning on the wipers when I tried to activate the turn signal.

I also had a mid-sized Mercury with a front bench seat in high school and occasion I would sit on the passenger side, drape my legs over the hump to work the pedals, and steer with my left hand low so it would look like there was nobody driving.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:02 PM on June 29, 2010


When I was a wee child I read in some trivia book the reason Americans drive on the right. The wagon trains heading west would have two men sitting on the buckboard: one to handle the reigns and the other to carry and wield a shotgun for Indian and animal attacks. Hence, the slang "riding shotgun" to refer to the front passenger seat. The (likely right-handed) shotgunner would have a freer range of motion, and the driver would be better centered on the left side of the wagon.

I don't know if that's true, but it's certainly a reasonable conclusion.
posted by zardoz at 10:37 PM on June 29, 2010


Was that a fixie? Driving a standard cluster counterclockwise doesn't get you very far.
posted by flabdablet at 10:56 PM on June 29, 2010


in Japan and some other places, there is more of dominance/chicken thing going on, where a person should appear oblivious and/or least likely to adjust their path to get others to subtly accommodate their path - if it looks like you will avoid or yield for people, they'll make no allowances for you and you'll have to yield.

When I was in Berlin, a group of us were coming back from dinner, walking on mostly-empty sidewalks and taking up the centre of the fairly wide sidewalk. In the distance we see some guy power-walking towards us, and as he gets closer, he yells "You must yield! I do not yield! I never yield! You must yield!" We yielded.
posted by jeather at 11:00 PM on June 29, 2010 [20 favorites]


We drive on the right because driving on the left is SOCIALISM!
posted by dirigibleman at 11:14 PM on June 29, 2010


people walked on the left, right, down the middle, or wherever they damn well pleased

Speaking as a London-dweller I can honestly say that until I read this thread the idea that there might be any conventional right/left side for pedestrians had never even occurred to me.

I read somewhere that back in the old days the issue in London was whether you 'held the wall' - ie walked close to the buildings or a little further out. Holding the wall meant you were less likely to be hit by the shit being thrown out of upstairs windows, so assertive or high-status people would do that while lower-status or more deferential/courteous folk passed further out and took the risk.
posted by Phanx at 11:40 PM on June 29, 2010


September 3, 1967 Sweden made the switch from keep-left to keep-right. One of the ways to promote this switch was a... bathing suit (NSFW?), apparently. The logo on the girl's bikini bottom is the official logo of the switch.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 11:40 PM on June 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


If only people could work it out on escalators...

This (inexcfuckingplicably removed from the TTC, system-wide, by some sort of upper-management brain fart) may help you.

Also, a reign is something a Queen or King has. Horses have reins.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:44 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, another way to promote Sweden's switch was a song by Telstars called "Håll dig till höger, Svensson" - that is "Keep to the Right, Svensson" and "Svensson" is the name of the Swedish everyman, so to speak. It's quite good, I think.

All in all, Sweden probably had the grooviest switch between keep-left and keep-right EVER!
posted by soundofsuburbia at 11:53 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe I'm biased because of my bad knees and advanced age, but I just don't understand people who walk up a moving stair. Down to catch a train, okay. But up? Even when I was young and my legs worked properly, I didn't like to walk up. Escalator stairs are too big to climb comfortably. Lazy from birth? You decide.

Nevertheless, I follow convention and stand aside.
posted by Splunge at 12:07 AM on June 30, 2010


he yells "You must yield! I do not yield! I never yield! You must yield!" We yielded.

He gets clotheslined if he tries that near me.

I was in Korea for a few days, and I quickly noticed that a lot of the young guys would slam you with their shoulder as they passed. I caught on to the eye-shift that signaled the intention, and I'd lean in and slam them back. It seemed to make them happy.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 1:15 AM on June 30, 2010


When I lived in London, I thought, 'But wait a minute, they drive on the left, am I supposed to walk on the left?' I tried to determine what was correct, but I never really settled on an answer. I feel like people walked on the left, right, down the middle, or wherever they damn well pleased.

London streets tend towards extremes: they're either pretty crowded or pretty empty. On the really busy streets, people throng three or four thick, so a two-lane system wouldn't work. On the other hand, we do have a lane system when it comes to escalators, and we stand on the right - largely, I think, because most people are right-handed and so can get a strong grip on the rail. We get very annoyed when someone doesn't comply with that; on the other hand we're pretty freewheeling about pavements, and the idea of 'supposed to' feels oddly draconian.

The only way to explain the contrast, I think, is to say that escalators involve queues. Mess with a queue in London and everyone is mad at you. Walking, on the other hand, is up for grabs. We're kind of the reverse of Spielberg's T-rex when it comes to rules: we can only see them if we're standing still. Once we're in motion, they vanish.

If I was looking for a road-based explanation for Londoners not streaming, I'd go for this one: we're a city of jaywalkers. The idea of getting stopped for jaywalking feels, to my London perspective, like a civil rights violation: how else do you get across the street? (Bear in mind that London streets are higgledy-piggledy, so crossing them systematically doesn't come naturally to anyone.) When we cross roads on foot we don't look for the rational system: we look for opportunities to dodge in and out of. That maps over when walking a crowded street.

We're also a city of pedestrians: London traffic is so crazy that almost anyone going through the centre goes by public transport. So streaming ourselves like cars might not come naturally to us either, because we don't usually navigate our city centre in cars - and even if we do, there are a lot of twists and turns, so again, the jaywalking in-and-out reflex is likely to show itself.

Basically, put a Londoner on foot and the Artful Dodger instinct kicks in.
posted by Kit W at 1:20 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


Chivalry of a different sort applies to my pavement strategy. I'm fairly sure it doesn't matter any more, but when I was in (boys-only, private) school we were taught that we should always walk on the side closest to the road so the elderly, infirm, and so on weren't forced into traffic. So, sometimes that means I'm on the left, sometimes I'm on the right.
posted by warpy at 1:57 AM on June 30, 2010


predominate

It's predominant, for the love of God. One's a verb, the other's an adjective. Arrrrgh. Sorry. I try not to be that guy, but I'm seeing this more and more lately.

On the subject of English pedestrians, an odd thing I noticed when I first moved here is that some people will walk into a shop and then be amazed that they're in a shop. At least that's the way I interpret what happens when they walk five steps through the door and then stop dead--not getting a cart or a basket or anything, just coming to a standstill in the middle of foot traffic. "Bloody hell, I'm in Tesco! How did that happen?"

And then they reverse the process coming back out. "Good lord, London! I was expecting Asbo-On-Sea or Much-Piddling-In-The-Marsh, but this? I'd better stop two feet outside the door and get my bearings".

Don't get me wrong...I love it here, but some days I wish I had a government-issued License to Shove.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:36 AM on June 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


I've always thought (presuambly been told this when younger) that you walk on the right in the UK because then you can see the oncoming traffic that will be passing nearer to you - it makes it safer when walking along a road with no pavement. This translated poorly while I was staying in Uganda (which drives on the left), though - I would walk along a dirt road on the right and be completely confused as to why I was getting in everyone's way.

Took me a while to work out that in a third-world country where walking is the predominant form of transport, pedestrians think of themselves as traffic and automatically follow the same rules.
posted by ZsigE at 5:26 AM on June 30, 2010


I have a friend who could possibly get a job in London but refuses to move from the US to the UK because it would "freak him out" to drive on the left.

I have never understood this. The end.

It also just feels natural to me to drive on the right because humans are predominately right handed. I never even thought that being right handed and drawing a sword would mean that being on the left would be advantageous, but then again, I don't think about drawing a sword very often.

Unless we're talking about people who mess with me in Carcassonne, then we've got thoughts of sword play a-plenty.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:07 AM on June 30, 2010


Somehow I knew the Teamsters were behind this all along.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:20 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


That was fascinating. I have a follow up question though, while we're on the subject of global traffic laws: why do stop signs around the world often say "Stop" in English, as opposed to translating the word into the local language? I am especially interested in the case of France, where I first noticed this phenomenon.
posted by jrb223 at 7:21 AM on June 30, 2010


I have a friend who could possibly get a job in London but refuses to move from the US to the UK because it would "freak him out" to drive on the left.

He needn't be afraid; it's not as if he'd get to use a car anyway. Not unless he wanted to spend most of his time crawling or jammed (I've heard estimates of the average car speed in London that range between 7 and 12 miles per hour) and the rest of it looking for somewhere to park within a mile of his destination. For which privilege he'd have to pay eight quid a day, if he wanted to enter the central-London congestion zone.

So nothing to worry about, really. ;-)
posted by Kit W at 7:28 AM on June 30, 2010


I think we should put lanes on the sidewalks, with the curbside sidewalk lane facing on-coming traffic. Belt-mounted turning lights would be optional, since I'm not a complete fascist totalitarian. Repeated failure to use hand signals would result in a dehandening though, and those penalized would then be compelled to take a stump-signalling course at their own expense.

*And I think to myself, "What a wonderful worrrrrld."*
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:30 AM on June 30, 2010


He needn't be afraid; it's not as if he'd get to use a car anyway.

No, he'd have to worry more about crossing the street. But after a few near misses, I learned quickly enough to look both ways a few times, instead of my usual "glance to the left while stepping off the curb" technique. It's good for the soul.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:34 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


irb223: why do stop signs around the world often say "Stop" in English
And that's nothing - it could be worse....
posted by MessageInABottle at 7:35 AM on June 30, 2010


Not meant to de-rail... I once read that the reason men's coats (ergo shirts, etc.) have the buttonholes on the left flap is so the coat could be easily opened with the left hand as the right hand went for the sword.

Sounds to me like one of those too-good-to-be true explanations, but perhaps that's cynical. It does leave open the question of why female garments are typically opposite.

And maybe there's a regional variation there too?
posted by maniabug at 7:35 AM on June 30, 2010


I just passed through Heathrow's Terminal 5 a couple of times last week and thought about this very issue when I noticed that everyone was walking to the right and the escalators were on the right.

I've spent some time in the keep left countries (England, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand) and I noticed that everyone seemed to "walk left" - which is why people's behavior and Heathrow's setup seemed odd to me. I guess the vast majority of people are from keep-right countries and are jet lagged so whatever keeps people from bumping into each other is better all around.
posted by cmj at 7:40 AM on June 30, 2010


I once read that the reason men's coats (ergo shirts, etc.) have the buttonholes on the left flap is so the coat could be easily opened with the left hand as the right hand went for the sword.

Oh wow. Did you, too, own The Big Book of Amazing Facts? It taught me this bit of history, as well as that when a man and a woman are walking together down the sidewalk, it's considered polite for the man to take the side closest to the street because in ye olden tymes, people hurling full chamberpots out their windows were more likely to douse those walking closest to the street. That really perplexed me - wouldn't it be better for people to walk single-file, closest to the buildings? Or carry umbrellas? Or pass a law making people toss the contents of chamberpots out their rear windows instead? I still don't know how true this all is.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:41 AM on June 30, 2010


My dad always told me that people drive on the left in the UK because in the days of driving carriages down country lanes, a right-handed driver on the right-hand side of the road would get his whip entangled in the hedgerows. Not necessarily correct, it seems, but at least picturesque, because hedgerows are nice.

He also told me that the 'gentlemen walk on the street side of a lady' rule was because a vehicle driving past could splash up puddles, which sounds reasonable enough. Though mind you, it's not the only reason; I've had pregnancy-addled days lately where my husband walked street side of me because I didn't trust my own sense of direction and it helped to have a second opinion between me and all those cars...
posted by Kit W at 7:56 AM on June 30, 2010


On a recent trip to Ireland, we rented a car which my father drove - somewhat perilously - westward across the country. The common refrain during that drive was "Keep left! Go mall! GO MALL!"
posted by lholladay at 8:40 AM on June 30, 2010


I once read that the reason men's coats (ergo shirts, etc.) have the buttonholes on the left...

I was told a different theory: that the men's way is just the easier way for dealing with your own buttons: with ladies it was the other way round because a maid would normally be doing up/undoing the buttons and that way it would be easier for her.
posted by Phanx at 9:13 AM on June 30, 2010


I first learned about Sweden's switch from left-to-right - known as Dagen H - from the excellent book Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. Here's a fun video of Dagen H.
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 9:30 AM on June 30, 2010


Here's something to keep in mind if you do find yourself going the wrong way on a highway: I saw this happen on the LIE in Long Island, the guy is going flat out the wrong way. Since he was now on the right side of his vehicle from my vantage point on the left side of mine, our faces passed about a foot apart. I could see he was in a total panic, and instinctively wanted to pull off the road on the right, but there was a barrier there. So remember, if this happens to you, pull over on the left side shoulder.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:16 AM on June 30, 2010


I always thought the US switched to a keep right country after the War for Independence and we wanted nothing to do with Britain...
posted by daHIFI at 10:25 AM on June 30, 2010


why do stop signs around the world often say "Stop" in English, as opposed to translating the word into the local language?

Something to do with recognition of the sign no matter what country you're in, recognising the overall shape as opposed to specific letters.

And yeah, dunno why men's clothes button on the side that they do (it would be just as easy the other way around if that's what we were used to), but modern women's clothing in the west largely derives from the wealthy, who would have someone else doing up the buttons, thus keeping them on the same side from the buttoner's perspective.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:28 AM on June 30, 2010


Alvy Ampersand: I remember as a kid in Brisbane that the city streets had lines down the middle, and you were apparently supposed to walk on whichever side of the line went with whatever direction you were going in. Don't remember which way went with which side though.
posted by Logophiliac at 1:14 PM on June 30, 2010


I never before wondered how the Teamsters got their name, yet now I know!
posted by cestmoi15 at 2:32 PM on June 30, 2010


FTA: "Most horse riders and cyclists will naturally mount the horse or bike from the left hand side. In the cyclist’s case, this is why most bike chains and gears are on the right side of the bike so that the rider can walk along on the left side of the bike and not worry about getting pants or shoe laces caught in the gearing while walking beside the bike."

Which means if you mount or dismount a horse or bike at the side of a road then this favors a keep left traffic pattern.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 9:21 PM on June 30, 2010


As I recall, in Japan you stand on the left side of the escalator (walk on the right). Compliance with this norm is very high. EXCEPT if you're in Kyoto, in which case you do the opposite.

Googling around, though, it seems like the real answer might be even more complicated.
posted by grobstein at 1:30 PM on July 1, 2010


And yeah, dunno why men's clothes button on the side that they do (it would be just as easy the other way around if that's what we were used to), but modern women's clothing in the west largely derives from the wealthy, who would have someone else doing up the buttons, thus keeping them on the same side from the buttoner's perspective.

Sorry, dirtynumbangelboy, but I'm going to have to call BS on that one. As a historical clothing researcher, I've heard it over & over again... but of course, no one has any real data to back up that cute little story.

First problem: the side buttons are on was completely arbitrary, up into the 20th century. Women's on the left, or right; men's garments buttoning left, or right. It only standardized in the 20th century, Why would early-20th-century lower-class and middle-class women so desperately want to emulate the upper classes, that they would adopt a style of fastening their everyday clothing based on a nearly-invisible difference from their "betters"?

The real reason, I suspect, is simple standardization due to mechanized production of garments. That accounts for the current standards being standards, but not the male/female left/right dichotomy.

In my opinion (and that's all it is; I don't have data to back it up, either), it's due to the reduction of gender typing in clothes. If you picked up a white upper-body covering from 1700, 1800, or even 1900, you would instantly know if the owner was (presumed to be) male or female. With mid-20th-c clothing, that line began to blur. Perhaps especially so with Calvin Klein's New Look of the 40's, but even before: flappers were noted for short hair and deemphasizing their hips & breasts, for instance.

So, how does a manufacturer ensure that their products are displayed in the correct section of the clothing store, so the correct half of the population sees them? By genderizing some part of the design that is essential, universal (prior to the rise of machine-knit fabrics), and unmistakable.

My 2 cents. The "emulating the wealthy" story is unsupportable, IMO, however.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:11 PM on July 1, 2010


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