Ask A Historian: Why Did Iceland Stop Driving On The Left? —

Ask A Historian: Why Did Iceland Stop Driving On The Left?

Published September 27, 2019

Ask A Historian: Why Did Iceland Stop Driving On The Left?
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Ásgeir Ásgeirsson

Odd as it may seem today, there was a time when Icelanders drove in the left lane, as they do in the UK, Japan, much of South Asia and southern Africa. However, that changed in 1968, and we sought out historian Stefán Pálsson to explain why:

“That Iceland didn’t switch to the right lane before 1968 can be explained by a blend of laziness and unluckiness. The Danes adopted right lane traffic, like most European nations, in the wake of the French Revolution. Although Iceland was a Danish colony, it didn’t occur to us to import this rule—ultimately, it was hard to talk about actual roads or traffic in Iceland at that time.

“Cars arrived in the early 20th century, and as they grew in number, the pressure grew to adopt traffic laws that would be in harmony with our neighbouring countries, especially as the cars we were importing were designed for right lane traffic.

“We finally decided to make the change in 1940. However, shortly before the regulation was enacted, Iceland became occupied by the British, who of course drive on the left, so it was considered wisest to wait on making the switch.

“By the end of the 1960s, Iceland was facing a monumental transportation infrastructure project, and it was clear that it would be expensive to make any changes to it once complete. And so it was decided to push ourselves into the traffic lane used by the rest of Europe. This was undoubtedly encouraged by Sweden making the switch in 1967. The Swedish government had actually decided on the switch many years before, but made the mistake of putting it up for referendum, and the right lane traffic was resoundingly defeated. The government had the sense next time around not to ask the people what they thought.”

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