All Right Now: 90 Years of the Rule of the Road Ordinance


Sunday marked the ninetieth anniversary of an important change in Gibraltar, a decision made and implemented all in less than twenty-four hours. This was the coming into force of the Rule of the Road Ordinance of 1929, passed only the day before by the Governor, Sir Alexander Godley, declaring that traffic would change to driving on the right at five o’clock that morning. 

Given that Gibraltar was tiny and shared a land border with Spain, which already drove on the right, it made sense. However, Madrid drove on the left until 1924, as did Portugal until 1928, so Gibraltar was not that much of an anomaly in the Iberian Peninsula. Or indeed elsewhere in southern continental Europe, with cities in Italy only finally changing from left to right in 1927.

In the former Spanish Empire, Argentina also drove on the left until 1945, a legacy of the British having built the railways, which still keep to the left, unlike those in Spain. In fact, Uruguay changed to the left to bring itself into line with Argentina, before changing back again, while the Philippines, despite having been ruled by the US since 1898, also only changed in 1945.


During their occupation of the Falkland Islands in 1982, the Argentine forces imposed driving on the right, like the Germans in the Channel Islands before them. They painted white arrows on the roads of Stanley, renamed ‘Puerto Argentino’, which the locals did their best to ignore, even when they came face to face with military vehicles, meaning that they had to drive around each other.

Of course, when Sir Alexander thought ‘we can’t go on like this, we’re changing sides tomorrow’, it was in the era of colonial officials being able to decree what they wanted without interference from pesky democratically elected local politicians, especially over a weekend. Can you imagine what Gibraltar would be like now, had the change never been made, then or later on?

It would be like Hong Kong, which, despite its return to China, still drives on the left, with restrictions on vehicles from the mainland still in force. So too does Macau, despite the latter formerly having been Portuguese, meaning that vehicles crossing the border (now called ‘the boundary’) have to go through a loop allowing them to flip sides without crashing into each other.

Driving in mainland China was originally mixed, with Shanghai and Canton driving on the left, but driving on the right became standard in 1946, as it did in Taiwan, previously ruled by the Japanese. In Hong Kong, local businessman and politician David Landale, suggested that the colony should follow suit, but after the Communist takeover in 1949, the border would be effectively closed.

By contrast, while Spain closed the border with Gibraltar to vehicles and pedestrians in 1969, most people were already used to driving on the right, and continued to do so when the border was closed, so saw no incentive to change back. That said, the late Maurice Xiberras told me that people would jokingly accuse the Integration With Britain Party of wanting to do just that!

Had changing to the right first been proposed by an elected government, it might have been attacked by the opposition as a dilution of Gibraltar’s British identity, an unnecessary pandering to Spain, and a waste of money, despite accidents involving cars from across the frontier. And that would have been after the publishing of Command Papers and Select Committee reports.

Or maybe a referendum, as in Sweden. It held one on the issue in 1955, in which it was rejected by four to one, although the turnout was little over half the electorate. Ironically, nearly all cars were left hand drive, resulting in a similar situation to some British overseas territories in the Caribbean, where cars, despite still being driven on the left, are usually imported from the US.

Eight years later, the Swedish government, like Sir Alexander in Gibraltar before it, decided that ‘we can’t go on like this’, and the country’s parliament passed a law under which traffic would change to the right in four years time, which it did. Fellow Nordic country Iceland, despite not having the problem with land borders that Sweden did, changed sides a year later.


As it happens, I got talking to a Swedish tourist outside the Convent, who said how interesting it was for her to visit ‘this part of Great Britain’, and joked that after Brexit, Gibraltar might change to driving on the left. Although I spared her an explanation of Gibraltar’s precise constitutional status in relation to the UK, I reassured her that the rule of the road would remain the same as it is now. In any event, the unfamiliarity of traffic on the right and looking left when I cross the road in Gibraltar is offset by the reassuring familiarity of everything else, like the road signs, traffic lights and number plates. In Malta, they may drive on the left, sometimes in British cars that people in the UK have forgotten ever existed, but their number plates look much too German for my liking.

Sir Alexander’s decision ninety years ago did not make Gibraltar less British, it just added to its hybrid culture, which is what makes it more Gibraltarian.