Did you know that 74 countries drive on the left-hand side of the road? That’s roughly 35% of the world. The cars in these countries have driver seats on the “wrong” side.
It can make you do a double-take when you pass a car with no driver in the driver’s seat, but most of us have seen right-hand driver vehicles at some point. But can you drive right-hand cars in the United States?
It is legal to drive right-hand cars in the US, but there are some conditions to importing and operating these vehicles. They must comply with the statutes governing safety standards and emissions. However, people may import right-hand drive cars that are 25 years or older without complying.
You may have noticed that the US postal carriers are right-hand drive vehicles (RHDs). Many other cars with this set-up are old classics that don’t spend much time on the tar because they are collectors’ items and mostly show themselves off at clubs and rallies.
Is It Legal To Drive Right-Hand Cars In The US?
Driving an RHD car in the US is perfectly legal, although there are some caveats. It also comes with some difficulties and inconveniences.
In 1988, the government passed the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act, which amended the 1966 law that prevented importing vehicles that did not comply with Federal safety regulations.
Importers could bring in vehicles that did not conform to Federal standards on the condition that they pass inspections to conform to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) and meet all the obligations required of cars designed for the US.
The Act exempts non-complying foreign vehicles aged 25 years or older from going through the rigmarole of conforming to all the safety regulations. The government considers them antiques or classics.
The USA used to have a flourishing grey automobile market, which peaked in the 1980s. A grey market imports vehicles from another country through channels besides the manufacturer’s typical distribution methods.
About 50,000 cars per year made their way into the country via private importers. This practice hurt the business of motor companies and their dealers so much that Mercedes-Benz USA lobbied to change importation laws. This led to the amendment of the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988.
Some USA Steering Wheel History
The first “automobiles” built in the 1890s did not have steering wheels but used a rudder mechanism in the center of the car to steer the vehicles. In 1898, inventors made the steering wheel.
They followed the existing manufacturer’s practice by placing it on the curbside, despite Americans driving on the right side of the road. Most American cars made before 1910 were RHD vehicles.
In 1908 Ford constructed the Model T, the first of its vehicles to sport a left-hand side steering wheel. By 1915, it became so popular that other car manufacturers followed Ford’s lead.
Driving A Right-Hand Car In The US
In World War II, many American servicemen became infatuated with the fancy British sports cars they encountered in the UK. Many brought some of these RHD beauties home with them. And so the interest in these vehicles began.
Many people mock other countries for driving on the “wrong” side of the road, so one wonders why some folk wants to import RHD cars. Here are some reasons:
- Some vehicles are only manufactured as RHDs, such as the highly sought-after Nissan Skyline. To acquire one in the states, you will have to import it via the grey market.
- Many drivers want their vehicles to stand out in the crowd, and RHDs are rare in America.
- Some RHD vehicles are used for business, e.g., mail carriers.
How It Feels To Drive An RHD Car
Driving an RHD car is relatively easy; it just takes some time to get used to a few things. Owning a vehicle like this is always a great conversation starter because it’s really only car enthusiasts that purchase them.
Also, be prepared to answer the perpetual question about why the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car.
In the beginning, you may find yourself mixing up your turn signals and windshield wipers. Some features are in reverse on an RHD car. The indicator stalk is on the right in an RHD vehicle, and the wipers are on the left.
Parallel parking can be easier in RHD cars because the driver is closer to the curb. There is better visibility, which helps when judging distances from other vehicles or the curb.
Making left turns could be a bit more tricky, so it’s advisable to lean over to check. In a left-turn-yield scenario, you might need help to see the oncoming traffic to time your turn properly. Then it’s best to wait for the yellow light before making your move or asking a passenger to give you the “all clear.”
You will also have to adjust to using your left hand to shift gears. Fortunately, the shift pattern is the same as a left-hand drive car, and even more of a relief is that the pedal arrangement is also identical.
Fast food drive-throughs, ATMs, parking ticket machines, and highway toll booths present some inconveniences with RHD vehicles. It may require some mild contortionism or getting out of the car to achieve these feats. Having a passenger would also help.
Where Do RHD Cars Come From?
Japan, the UK, and Australia are the primary sources of RHD cars. Japan is the most popular supplier because of the excellent condition of their used cars, their good resale prices, and the appeal of owning high-performance vehicles that aren’t available in the US.
Car enthusiasts often want to own JDMs or those cars designed for the Japanese Domestic Market. They have a reputation for longevity, fuel efficiency, high resale value, and the high turnover of vehicles means that the original parts are usually in great condition.
If owning an RHD car is on your bucket list, you have three options for acquiring one. You can do a DIY conversion, either by buying a cheap conversion kit (not recommended because it will not look authentic), or buying all the parts, stripping the car down, and rebuilding it.
You can also take it to a professional conversion company that will do the necessary, but it is not cheap, so be prepared to haul out all your change.
Finally, you can import your dream car. This is probably the best option, but it comes with more admin and expense than the other options.
Despite right-hand drive vehicles not being common in the United States, it is entirely legal to drive them on the roads and highways as long as they comply with the FMVSS if they are newer than 25 years old.
If they’re older, the government considers them antiques or collectibles to be admired for their sheer beauty and class!