Left Vs. Right
It was once said that, “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” This phrase, along with similar variations, became popularized in Britain during the 19th century, as British imperial power was spreading throughout the globe. The influence the British Empire had was immense, with lands and territories so vast that at any given time, daylight was sure to be shining on at least one of her colonies. As was often the case throughout history, the British brought much of their culture and ways of life to the various lands they colonized, and some of those traditions can still be seen today.
One such contribution is road driving side. Today, of the roughly one third of countries that drive on the left side of the road, most are former British colonies or territories, like India, Australia and New Zealand. But why? How did left side driving become the norm in Britain, and why do the majority of other countries today drive on the right?
Blame Your Hands
For a long time, driving on a particular side of the road didn’t really matter. There weren’t that many travelers, and roads weren’t paved or marked with any sort of traffic signals. People were free to move about as they pleased.
While no consensus existed as to which side of the road people should travel on, there is evidence to suggest that for much of history, it was actually preferred to drive on the left. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancient Romans may have driven their carts and chariots on the left, and the practice seems to have carried over into parts of medieval Europe.
During feudal and more violent times, most societies preferred left-hand driving, as it offered various advantages while riding by horseback for right-handed individuals. Riding on the left-hand side allows one to wield a weapon with their dominant hand as they pass a potential enemy. Whether it was a Knight with a sword, or some peasant with a pitchfork, everyone had to be ready for combat at any given time, and that meant keeping to the left so you could more easily attack any potential threat.
Additionally, most right-handed riders mount a horse from the left. Riding on the left side would mean that a person could mount and dismount from the side of a path, as opposed to having to go out into the road. Over time, the left-hand convention stuck, and in 1773, the British Government introduced the General Highways Act, which encouraged citizens to drive on the left. The Highway Act of 1835 later reinforced this, making it the law of the land. Britain would go on to enforce the left-hand convention in all her colonies.
Japan was never part of the British Empire, but its traffic also goes to the left. Although the origin of this habit goes back a long time, it wasn’t until 1872 that this unwritten rule became more official. In that year, Japan’s first railway was introduced, which was built with help from Britain. Over time, a network of railways were built, all with trains that drove on the left-hand side. In 1924, left side driving was clearly written into Japanese law.
Fight For Your Right
If Britain was enforcing left-hand driving, it shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise that France, their historical rival, opted for the right-hand side. In pre-revolution France, it was common for the aristocracy to travel on the left-hand side, which forced peasants to use the right. After the revolution, to save themselves from the guillotine, the aristocracy began to use the right side so as to not stand out. Right-hand driving became the unwritten rule in France, and once Napoleon took power, he began enforcing the right-hand convention in all territories he conquered (popular myth suggests this was also because he was left-handed, which would keep his sword arm between him and the advancing enemy).
Around the same time, right-hand driving began to be more popular in the United States with the increased use of large freight wagons pulled by horses. These early wagons had no drivers seat, so a person would sit on the left rear horse, which allowed them to whip the horses with their right-hand. When seated in this position, right side driving made more sense, as it allowed the driver to easily monitor oncoming traffic, and ensure they did not hit the wheels of vehicles coming from the opposite direction. By the early 19th century, many American cities had enacted laws mandating right side driving.
When the 20th century rolled around, many regions and countries around the world still had no consensus for what the preferred driving side was. Henry Ford, who mass-produced his Model T automobile with a left-positioned steering wheel, helped popularize the idea of right side driving. As cars became more prevalent worldwide, more and more nations began to adopt official rules about driving conventions.
Must We Disagree?
So why do so many countries continue to drive on the left, while the majority drive on the right? It’s not for lack of trying.
In the 1960s, Great Britain considered switching over to the right, but the idea eventually fizzled. The reason? Well, you can ask Americans why they still use the Imperial system of measurement instead of the Metric system – the easy answer is practicality. Cities like London were designed to accommodate left-handed drivers. Simply switching sides is not as easy as it sounds. There are many financial and logistical factors to consider, and as more people and cars join the roads each day, it gets even harder. Can you imagine the headache that would be caused if New York City decided to switch driving sides one day? No thanks.
So for now, it looks like British drivers who take their cars under the English Channel will continue to have to swap sides when they arrive in France. The sun never sets on left side driving countries.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.