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Steering Wheel Rules in Lithuania, Poland Nixed

(CN) - Laws in Poland and Lithuania that force vehicle owners to move steering wheels to the left side of their vehicles violate EU law, Europe's highest court ruled Thursday.

The European Commission sued the countries after learning Poland had blocked registrations of vehicles originating in the United Kingdom that have steering wheels on the right side of the vehicle, and Lithuania had banned the sales of such cars there. Both countries also require vehicle owners to reposition driver seats from the right to the left in order register their vehicles.

Regulators argued that the countries' requirements violated the EU's free market and import rules. For their part, both countries said their rules made for improved road safety.

But while the majority of EU member states do drive on the right side of the road, the Court of Justice of the European Union noted that the U.K. and Ireland do not. As a condition of joining the union, those nations made it illegal to prohibit right-hand drive vehicles.

"In that context, it cannot reasonably be considered that the European Union legislature was unaware of the fact that the accession of member states in the territory of which the direction of road traffic was on the left, and one of which was a manufacturer of vehicles with their driver's seat on the right-hand side, was liable in an internal market involving the right to free movement to have an effect on driving habits, even to involve a certain risk connected with road traffic," the court wrote. "By contrast, it must be concluded that the legislature took account of that potential risk and chose to adopt the law."

The court rejected the claim that moving steering wheels to the left meant safer roads, since doing so without also changing the fundamental design of the vehicle - lighting and windshield wiping in particular - would actually create more safety hazards.

Such laws also effectively restrict imports of right-hand drive vehicles lawfully built and registered elsewhere in the EU, according to the ruling. Again, road safety does not justify the restrictions - especially since the laws exempt vehicles driven by tourists and other short term guests, the court said.

"It must be pointed out, finally, that there exists means and measures less restrictive of the free movement of goods than the measure at issue and at the same time capable of significantly reducing the risk which could be created by the use of vehicles with the steering wheel placed on the same side as the direction of the traffic," the EU justices wrote. "It must be pointed out in particular that the member states enjoy in that regard discretion for the purpose of imposing measures, including those proposed by the commission, that would be capable of using technology to ensure sufficient rear and forward visibility for the driver of the vehicle with the steering wheel positioned on the same side as the direction of the traffic."

In all, 163 countries and territories have right-hand traffic, which accounts for 65 percent of the world's population and 90 percent of all road miles.

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