On Sunday, April 2, 1972, Nigeria ditched the British-styled right-hand drive to the left-hand drive common among the French, German, and Americans. The terms right and left-hand drive refers to the position of the driver in the vehicle and are the reverse of the terms right and left-hand traffic.

Major-General Yakubu Gowon was the country’s Head of State at the time. But why did the government part ways with the British system of driving by changing from the Right-Hand to the Left-Hand Drive?

Origin of the Right-Hand Drive

In time past, almost everyone travelled on the left side of the road because that was the most sensible option for primitive societies. Howbeit, most people were right-handed and swordsmen preferred to keep to the left in order to have their right arm nearer to an opponent and their scabbard further from him.

Also, a swordsman finds it easier to mount a horse from the left side of the horse, and it would be very difficult to do otherwise if wearing a sword (which would be worn on the left). It is safer to mount and dismount towards the side of the road, rather than in the middle of traffic, so if one mounts on the left, then the horse should be ridden on the left side of the road.

However, in the late 18th century, haulers in France and the United States began moving farm products in big wagons pulled by several pairs of horses. These wagons had no driver’s seat; instead the driver sat on the left rear horse, so he could keep his right arm free to lash the team. Since he was sitting on the left, he naturally wanted everybody to pass on the left so he could look down and make sure he kept clear of the oncoming wagon’s wheels. Therefore he kept to the right side of the road.

Image of Right-Hand Wagon Driving
Illustration of wagon driving in 18th century America.

The French Revolution of 1789 gave huge popularity to right-hand drive in Europe. The fact is, before the Revolution, the upper classes travelled on the left of the road, forcing the lower classes over to the right, but after the Revolution, to save themselves from the guillotine (an execution method in France), they kept a low profile and joined the lower classes on the right.

Therefore, the right-hand-drive became an unwritten rule in France.  Nevertheless, an official keep-right rule was eventually introduced in Paris in 1794.

Traffic in the 19th Century

In the early 1800s, the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte conquered much of Europe (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, and many parts of Spain and Italy) and enforced the new rule there. However, Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Portugal resisted Napoleon and maintained the left side.

With the expansion of travel and road building in the 1800s, traffic regulations were made in every country. The British made right-hand driving obligatory in 1835 and British colonies which were part of the British Empire followed suit.

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France, (August 15, 1769 – May 5, 1821)/Source.

This is why to this very day, India, Australia, New Zealand, and former British colonies in Africa, mainly East and Southern Africa, navigate left. Though Japan was never part of the British Empire, its traffic also goes to the left. However, it did not become a law until 1924. That is why all Japanese cars are originally built as right-hand drives.

Left-Hand Drive in America

In the New World, the early years of English colonisation of North America continued with the English driving customs and the colonies drove on the left.

After gaining independence in 1776, the United States was anxious to cast off all remaining links with their British colonial past and gradually changed to right-hand driving. This was also made possible through the influence of other European immigrants, especially the French.

In the U.S., the first law requiring drivers to keep right was passed in Pennsylvania in 1792, New York in 1804, New Jersey in 1813, and Massachusetts in 1821.

Left-Hand Drive in Europe

In Europe, the remaining left-hand drive countries switched one by one to the right-hand drive except for Sweden, the odd one out in mainland Europe.

However, in 1955, the Swedish government held a referendum on the introduction of right-hand driving. Although no less than 82.9% voted “no” to the plebiscite, the Swedish parliament passed a law on the conversion to right-hand driving in 1963.

Finally, the change took place on Sunday, September 3, 1967, at 5 o’clock in the morning. The day was referred to as Dagen H or, in English, H-Day. The H stands for Högertrafik, the Swedish word for right-hand traffic or left-hand drive. After Sweden’s successful changeover, Iceland changed the following year, in 1968.

Image of H-Day - Left-Hand drive or right-hand traffic
Left-Hand Drive or H-Day in Sweden, September 3, 1967.

Meanwhile, the power of the right-hand drive kept growing steadily. American cars were designed to be driven on the right by locating the drivers’ controls on the vehicle’s left side. With the mass production of reliable and economical cars in the United States, initial exports used the same design, and out of necessity many countries changed their rule of the road.

Nigeria, Africa, and Asia

In Asia, China changed to right-hand traffic in 1946. Korea now drives right, but only because it passed directly from Japanese colonial rule to American and Russian influence at the end of the Second World War. As stated before, Japan maintains the right-hand drive.

Image of Right-Hand-Drive Nigeria; Traffic in Lagos, 1960.
Right-Hand Drive Traffic in Lagos, 1960.

In fact, in 1973, it attempted to officially rename Lagos, then federal capital with the nomenclature of Portuguese origin, to Eko (an indigenous word the city is also called) but the change was shunned among its citizens.

Proponents of Nigeria’s change to the left-hand drive have argued that it was to break ties with its colonial master, the story runs deeper than that. In the same vein, antagonists and critics of the policy believe it was because of Western imperialism. To a layman, both stories would be easily believed.

But why did Nigeria change from the Right-Hand to the Left-Hand drive?

First, Nigeria was surrounded by countries with French colonial history that had always been on the right-hand drive; the Republic of Benin, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad.

Then, their drivers used Nigeria’s ports and borders while Nigerian drivers delivered goods to those countries with much confusion. It made much sense to make that change.

So, if you wanted to drive from Lagos (Nigeria) to Lome (Togo), you had to learn to drive on the opposite side of the road. Changing to the left simply made the journey easy. That was why Ghana had to change as well. The entire West African region is dominated by the Francophone countries and the need for a seamless transportation and business flow triggered the change.

Second, most cheap and affordable cars in vogue then were made in France (Renault, Peugeot) and Germany (Volkswagen) which were designed for right-hand drive roads. It would be an expensive process to convert them. Though Japanese cars are built for left-hand drive roads, they were not popular in Nigeria in the ‘70s.

Image of Right-Hand driving, Abuja, Nigeria, 2015.
Left-Hand drive, Abuja, Nigeria, 2015.

Third, in reference to the table below, more countries use on the left-hand drive side than the right. Most of whom are giant automobile manufacturers. The left-hand drive is used in 165 countries and territories, with the remaining 74 countries and territories using the right-hand drive. Countries that use the left-hand drive account for about a sixth of the world’s area and a quarter of its roads.

S/N  Left-Hand Drive Countries S/N Right-Hand Drive Countries
1 Afghanistan 1 Anguilla
2 Albania 2 Antigua and Barbuda
3 Algeria 3 Australia
4 American Samoa 4 Bahamas
5 Andorra 5 Bangladesh
6 Angola 6 Barbados
7 Argentina 7 Bermuda
8 Armenia 8 Bhutan
9 Aruba 9 Botswana
10 Austria 10 Brunei
11 Azerbaijan 11 Cayman Islands
12 Bahrain 12 Christmas Island (Australia)
13 Belarus 13 Cook Islands
14 Belgium 14 Cyprus
15 Belize 15 Dominica
16 Benin 16 East Timor
17 Bolivia 17 Falkland Islands
18 Bosnia and Herzegovina 18 Fiji
19 Brazil 19 Grenada
20 British Indian Ocean Territory (Diego García) 20 Guernsey (Channel Islands)
21 Bulgaria 21 Guyana
22 Burkina Faso 22 Hong Kong
23 Burundi 23 India
24 Cambodia 24 Indonesia
25 Cameroon 25 Ireland
26 Canada 26 Isle of Man
27 Cape Verde 27 Jamaica
28 Central African Republic 28 Japan
29 Chad 29 Jersey (Channel Islands)
30 Chile 30 Kenya
31 China, People’s Republic of (Mainland China) 31 Kiribati
32 Colombia 32 Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia)
33 Comoros 33 Lesotho
34 Congo 34 Macau
35 Congo (former Republic of Zaire) 35 Malawi
36 Costa Rica 36 Malaysia
37 Croatia 37 Maldives
38 Cuba 38 Malta
39 Czech Republic 39 Mauritius
40 Denmark 40 Montserrat
41 Djibouti 41 Mozambique
42 Dominican Republic 42 Namibia
43 Ecuador 43 Nauru
44 Egypt 44 Nepal
45 El Salvador 45 New Zealand
46 Equatorial Guinea 46 Niue
47 Eritrea 47 Norfolk Island (Australia)
48 Estonia 48 Pakistan
49 Ethiopia 49 Papua New Guinea
50 Faroe Islands (Denmark) 50 Pitcairn Islands (Britain)
51 Finland 51 Saint Helena
52 France 52 Saint Kitts and Nevis
53 French Guiana 53 Saint Lucia
54 French Polynesia 54 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
55 Gabon 55 Seychelles
56 Gambia, The 56 Singapore
57 Gaza Strip 57 Solomon Islands
58 Georgia 58 South Africa
59 Germany 59 Sri Lanka
60 Ghana 60 Suriname
61 Gibraltar 61 Swaziland
62 Greece 62 Tanzania
63 Greenland 63 Thailand
64 Guadeloupe (French West Indies) 64 Tokelau (New Zealand)
65 Guam 65 Tonga
66 Guatemala 66 Trinidad and Tobago
67 Guinea 67 Turks and Caicos Islands
68 Guinea-Bissau 68 Tuvalu
69 Haiti 69 Uganda
70 Honduras 70 United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland)
71 Hungary 71 Virgin Islands (British)
72 Iceland 72 Virgin Islands (US)
73 Iran 73 Zambia
74 Iraq 74 Zimbabwe
75 Israel
76 Italy
77 Ivory Coast
78 Jordan
79 Kazakhstan
80 Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of (North Korea)
81 Korea, Republic of (South Korea)
82 Kuwait
83 Kyrgyzstan
84 Laos
85 Latvia
86 Lebanon
87 Liberia
88 Libya
89 Liechtenstein
90 Lithuania
91 Luxembourg
92 Macedonia
93 Madagascar
94 Mali
95 Marshall Islands
96 Martinique (French West Indies)
97 Mauritania
98 Mayotte (France)
99 Mexico
100 Micronesia, Federated States of
101 Midway Islands (USA)
102 Moldova
103 Monaco
104 Mongolia
105 Morocco
106 Myanmar (formerly Burma)
107 Netherlands
108 Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, Saba)
109 New Caledonia
110 Nicaragua
111 Niger
112 Nigeria
113 Northern Mariana Islands
114 Norway
115 Oman
116 Palau
117 Panama
118 Paraguay
119 Peru
120 Philippines
121 Poland
122 Portugal
123 Puerto Rico
124 Qatar
125 Réunion
126 Romania
127 Russia
128 Rwanda
129 Saint Barthélemy (French West Indies)
130 Saint Martin (French West Indies)
131 Saint Pierre and Miquelon (France)
132 Samoa
133 San Marino
134 Sao Tome and Principe
135 Saudi Arabia
136 Senegal
137 Serbia and Montenegro
138 Sierra Leone
139 Slovakia
140 Slovenia
141 Somalia
142 Spain
143 Sudan
144 Svalbard (Norway)
145 Sweden
146 Switzerland
147 Syria
148 Taiwan
149 Tajikistan
150 Togo
151 Tunisia
152 Turkey
153 Turkmenistan
154 Ukraine
155 United Arab Emirates
156 United States
157 Uruguay
158 Uzbekistan
159 Vanuatu
160 Venezuela
161 Vietnam
162 Wake Island (USA)
163 Wallis and Futuna Islands (France)
164 Western Sahara
165 Yemen

Do you think Nigeria should have maintained the right-hand drive instead of the left-hand drive? You can share your thoughts in the comment box below…

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  1. It’s better for traffic to keep right in order to standardise driving side in not only Nigeria, neighbouring countries and regions without considering arbitrary borders but also in neighbouring continents such as continental Europe and Asia, especially in the Middle East and Central Asia such as Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, UAE, etc.