FOR MEMBERS

The story of how half of Austria drove on the left and half on the right – for 20 years

The story of how half of Austria drove on the left and half on the right - for 20 years
A tram which drove through Vienna in 1938 after the German invasion which reminded people to drive on the right. Image: Wikicommons.
For 20 years, half of Austria drove on the right-hand side, while the other half drove on the left. The story of Austria's shift from left to right is one of politics, the death and birth of empires, Napoleon and Hitler. Here's what you need to know. 

Fortunately for tourists and Austrians alike, the entire country of Austria – including each and every one of its nine states – drives on the right-hand side.

Besides being somewhat beneficial for travelling within Austria, it also helps cross borders as each of Austria’s neighbours drives on the right hand side. 

The following map shows which parts of the world drive on which side of the road, with continental Europe obviously favouring the right-hand side. 

The world according to side of traffic. Image: Statista.

It might surprise you to learn however that this was not the case as recently as 100 years ago.

In fact, for around 20 years, some parts of Austria drove on the left – and some on the right. 

Why did Austria take so long to shift? 

The story of Austria’s shift from left to right is one of politics, the death and birth of empires, Napoleon and Hitler. 

Originally, left-side traffic was all the rage in Austria. 

The Austro-Hungarian Empire drove on the left-hand side via a mandate, largely in historical resistance to Napoleon and his army, notes the British Motor Museum.

When Napoleon moved through Europe, the countries he conquered became right-hand drive. Those countries which were proudly unconquered, drove on the left to thumb their nose at Bonaparte and his forces. 

The Empire put in place a left-hand side drive rule across all of its territories in 1915, but it received stiff opposition from states where right-hand drive had been the norm, primarily the western state of Vorarlberg. 

As a consequence, half of Austria – the half which had been invaded by Napoleon – drove on the right, while the other half drove on the left.

The dividing line was precisely the border until which Napoleon had conquered in 1805. 

After the Austro-Hungarian empire dissolved, gradually different successor nations converted to right-hand drive, although this took place over a relatively long period.

When Austria swapped from left-hand drive to the right. Image: Tubs/Austrian Maps/Wikicommons

In Austria, this was the same internally, although of course regular commuting from one state to the other was comparatively rare at the time.

As can be seen in the above map, Vorarlberg made the switch to right-hand drive in 1921, but it was not until 1938 – when Austria was invaded by Germany – when Vienna finally made the switch.

Adolf Hitler, when invading his homeland, ordered the remaining parts of Austria to switch from left to right overnight. 

As could probably be expected, this was incredibly chaotic, with motorists unable to see street signs and trams being unable to make the shift. 

The following picture shows left-hand traffic along Kärntnerstraße in the centre of Vienna in 1930. 

Kärntnerstraße in Vienna, 1930. Image: Wikicommons.

After several months, the shift had been made – and it became permanent. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and Hungary, they made the shift in 1939 and 1944 respectively. 

These were among the last European countries to make the shift, although Sweden remarkably held out until 1967. 

While millions of schillings were spent on the transition, the legacy of left-hand driving can still be seen in Austria. 

The Wiener Schnellbahn still has guidance systems, entrances and tracks on the left. 


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