Drive on the LEFT
Why does Britain drive on the left?
Having lived abroad for many years, this perennial question keeps popping up, ‘Why do you guys drive on the left? The classic retort is ‘Why do you guys drive on the right?’ A stand off is usually what happens at this point. With neither party being able to succinctly answer either question. With a little bit of research Sir Gordon has found the answer, although the waters are a little murky.
And it goes a little something like this. Originally everyone ‘drove’ on the left. We use inverted quotations because this was a time before driving. It dates back aeons. Roman soldiers purportedly always marched on the left and in 1300AD Pope Boniface VIII declared 'All pilgrims travelling to Rome should keep to the left'.
The story goes that whilst riding a horse, you rode on the left hand side of the country lane to leave your right hand free to defend yourself from attack. This is because 90% of people are right handed and you needed to be able to swing your sword effectively. Highway robbery was a constant threat and the car jacking of its day. All makes perfect sense. But why does most of the world drive on the right and Britain stayed on the left?
In 1773 the British Government introduced the General Highways Act. Where all road users were expected to stay to the left (not quite drive on the left though as cars hadn’t been invented). Be they horse riders, coachmen, farmers or Dandy Highwaymen, staying left was where you needed to be. Then in 1835 the Highways Act made this law of the land. The British now stuck to the left hand lane. Even though holding a sword in your right hand was probably not needed anymore.
Apart from the Russians, (who always marched to the beat of their own drum) who used the right, mainland Europe also stayed on the left. But then the French revolution happened and the French decided to change everything within French Society. They wanted a brave new world and that included moving all vehicles to the right. Napoleon had a say in this too, and ordered his armies to invade countries on the right. There are myths around this. Some claim it was to unsettle and confuse the opposition. That Napoleon himself was was left handed. That it showed he was a great military tactician. Or that he was so powerful he could defy a Pope (It probably also pissed off the Brits who were adamant they would ‘drive’ on the left).
Everyone else still kept left though. But as more and more traffic began to move around Europe confusion reigned. So gradually the whole of Europe began to move to the right to make life easier. This though took over a hundred years or so to complete.
This was also a time when Britain and France were having a race to see who could colonise most of the world. Obviously those countries taken over by Britain stuck to the driving on the left. Australia, New Zealand and India. And those invaded by France stuck to the right.
THE US of AUTOMOBILE
The Americas were split though. With the arrivals of Britain, Holland, Spain and Portugal all keeping to the left. And French colonies sticking to the right across the continent.
So, how did the Americas become right hand drive? Well this is a story of two vehicles. Firstly, the freight wagons pulled by a chain of horses set aside in pairs. You know the ones from countless Westerns. The best place to sit on these wagons is to the left behind the horses. As most people are right handed, so you could whip all of the horses without interference. And of course sitting in the middle of the lane is better for seeing who was coming towards you down the road.
THE RISE OF THE CAR
Then the motorised car appeared on the scene. Although originally cars generally had their steering column in the centre, they soon followed suit in America of the freight wagons and placed the driver on the left. Also America was becoming a giant when it came to car manufacturing and exporting so they stuck with left hand drive. Huge car manufacturing centres in Europe like Stuttgart and Munich also stuck to what had come before. Staying on the right hand side of the road. Probably due to their close proximity to France. Whilst all, no doubt sporting some classic goggles.
Canada Provinces could freely choose which side to drive on. And many use to drive on the left but moved over to the right because of its huge trade with the US.
LEFT RIGHT, RIGHT LEFT
Japan historically started on the left because their rail network was designed by British engineers to be left hand drive. That was until 1945. When the U.S. declared the Okinawa Prefecture that decreed they had to switch to the right. Then switched once more in 1978 back to the left.
The last Europeans to move from the left to the right were the Swedes. Who on September 3rd 1967 at 4.50AM made the change noted as Högertrafikomläggningen. For 10 minutes all traffic stopped before restarting on the right. Which must have been an anxious wait and an even more anxious few days afterwards. But luckily the Swedes had a chart topping song to help the remember, ‘Keep to the Right Svensson’ by The Telstars.
If you study who drives on the left and who drives on the right you will notice that is it mostly islands that drive on the left. Great Britain, Ireland, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Cyprus. The main exception is India, but anyone who has driven in India can confirm that they neither drive on the left or right. Traffic lines and lights seem more like a suggestion than a law. It feels like a free for all.
The perennial question of why do you drive on the left may be answered for now but with self driving cars will there even be a left or right? Will the cars all be so synced with each other that lanes become obsolete? Let’s hope not for the sake of pedestrians and cyclists.
If you are into your driving either on the left or the right then you should check out the splendid goggles from Halcyon below, handcrafted in Hertfordshire. Or The Morgan driving gloves from Chester Jefferies and Dents 007 driving gloves as worn in the Spectre film and all lovingly handcrafted in Britain.