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St. John’s Left-Hand Drive: Historical Legacy and Practicality

Driving on the left side of the road in the United States Virgin Islands, particularly in St. John, is a unique aspect of transportation culture that traces its roots back to historical influences and practical considerations. While many parts of the world drive on the right side of the road, certain territories, including the US Virgin Islands, adhere to left-hand driving. This choice is not arbitrary; it reflects a blend of historical, geographical, and governmental factors that have shaped the island’s infrastructure and driving conventions over time.

The tradition of driving on the left side of the road in St. John can be attributed to its colonial history. The island, like much of the Caribbean, was subject to European colonization, primarily by the Danish in the case of St. John. Denmark controlled the Virgin Islands from the 17th century until 1917 when the United States purchased the territory. During Denmark’s rule, it adopted the practice of left-hand driving, which was common among European nations at the time. This historical precedent established the foundation for traffic norms on the island.


a truck that has a sign on the side of a road

Sign reminding drivers to keep left in the US Virgin Islands


One plausible explanation for why Denmark and other European powers favored left-hand driving lies in medieval times. In the era of knights and swords, most people were right-handed. Riding on the left side of the road allowed knights to keep their dominant hand free for defense and to easily draw their swords if needed. This custom persisted and became ingrained in European transportation practices, including those adopted by colonial territories like the Virgin Islands.

Furthermore, St. John’s topography and road layout contribute to the preference for left-hand driving. The island’s narrow, winding roads often hug the coastline and ascend steep hillsides. Driving on the left allows drivers to have better visibility, particularly when navigating sharp turns or encountering oncoming traffic. This arrangement aligns with the principle of “keeping to the left,” which maximizes safety and efficiency in such challenging terrain.

The decision to maintain left-hand driving in the US Virgin Islands, even after becoming a US territory, reflects a blend of historical continuity and practicality. While the United States generally drives on the right side of the road, the islands have preserved their unique traffic orientation, akin to other former British and Danish colonies like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

From a governmental perspective, transitioning to right-hand driving would entail significant logistical challenges and costs. It would require reconfiguring road signs, traffic signals, and road markings, as well as re-educating drivers and updating driver licensing protocols. Such a transition would disrupt established traffic patterns and could potentially compromise road safety during the adjustment period.

Additionally, the local population’s familiarity with left-hand driving further reinforces its retention as the prevailing norm. Residents and frequent visitors have grown accustomed to navigating the island’s roads according to this convention, and changing it would likely meet with resistance and confusion.

Despite its adherence to left-hand driving, St. John and the broader US Virgin Islands have adapted to accommodate tourists and visitors from regions where right-hand driving is standard. Rental car agencies provide vehicles with steering wheels positioned for left-hand driving, catering to the preferences and expectations of visitors from the mainland United States and other countries.


a cow is walking down the street

Keep left and drive slowly with all the wildlife in St. John


In conclusion, driving on the left side of the road in St. John, US Virgin Islands, is a product of historical legacy, geographical considerations, and practicality. Rooted in the island’s colonial past and shaped by its unique topography, left-hand driving has become an integral aspect of transportation culture. While it diverges from the norms observed in many parts of the United States, it reflects the enduring influence of European colonization and the adaptation of local customs to suit the island’s distinctive environment. Despite occasional challenges, the tradition of left-hand driving in St. John persists as a testament to the island’s rich history and distinctive identity.