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Published on Jul 17, 2013 in Europe, News

Why do the British Drive on the Left?

If you’ve ever been to Britain, one of the first things you notice is that the Brits drive on the wrong side of the road, according to most Americans, anyway. They drive on the left. Whereas Americans, at least those that can pass a Breathalyzer test, drive on the right.
In Britain everything seems to be reversed. The car’s steering wheel is on the right and, when using a crosswalk, you have to look right first, instead of left. The question you might ask yourself is: why? When did they change from driving on the right side of the road to driving on the left? The answer might surprise you.
Some say that the British thought they couldn’t go wrong by doing something the opposite of us Americans. Therefore, if we drove on the right, then driving on the left was obviously the thing to do. As tempting as that answer is for some Brits to accept, it’s not the case. It’s actually Americans, or more specifically most of the world who now drive on the right, who’ve changed! Let me take you back to the beginning.
Road protocol started about 1000 B.C. when China’s Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C. to 256 B.C.), in their Book of Rites, decreed that the left side of the road was reserved for carriages and women, and the right side for men. This system eventually blurred and went away but, in Asia, road protocol was initially a method of distinguishing between social classes.
In the Middle Ages, or Medieval times, European travelers, and by extension the Brits, rode their horses on the left side of the road. Historically, this was a time when there were highwaymen, outlaws, and thieves who would rob or attack those traveling. There was no 911 or police patrols back then. You were responsible for your own protection. Therefore, people tended to travel on the left side of the road so they could make sure that any stranger they encountered would pass them on the right. Since most people are right handed, this would allow them to face the stranger with their sword if attacked. This custom was acknowledged in 1300 A.D. when Pope Boniface VIII declared that pilgrims traveling to Rome should keep to the left side of roadways. Some, however, dispute that the Pope actually said this indicating that he only ordered pilgrims on the Bridge of St. Angelo en route to and from St. Peter’s Basilica to keep to the right. In whichever version is correct, by the 14th century road protocol was in place throughout Europe.
This system of travel prevailed for the next 400 years until the late 1700s when farmers, in both the U.S. and France, started hauling their farm products in large wagons pulled by several sets of horses. According to Cecil Adams, these wagons had no driver seat, as they were designed to haul goods. Instead, the driver rode on the left rear horse so that he could keep his right arm free to lash his team. Also, if you’re sitting on the left, you pretty much want someone passing you to be on the left so as to make sure your wheels keep clear of one another on largely narrow roads where two large wagons barely had room to pass each other. For these reasons, people in France and the U.S. frequently drove on the right side of the road. In 1792 Pennsylvania memorialized this practice when it enacted the first known keep-right law in its newly established turnpike from Lancaster to Philadelphia. New York, however, in 1804 became the first state to legislate right hand travel on all public highways. By the time of the Civil War, in 1861, right hand traffic was followed in every state. Soon after, most of Canada followed.
The French Revolution, which began in 1789, was occurring at about the same time Pennsylvania was legislating its keep-right laws. Prior to the revolution the peasantry was forced to the right side of the road by the aristocracy’s fast-moving carriages which, as a matter of course, traveled on the left. As a result of the revolution, aristocrats were subsequently forced to join the peasants on the right hand portion of the road. In standardizing this, a keep-right rule was introduced in Paris in 1794. When Napoleon, Emperor of the French between 1804 and 1815, came to power he enforced the keep-right rule in the countries he occupied. After his defeat, the keep-right rule endured in those countries.
The British, however, never adopted this new system. Napoleon never conquered Britain, and the British didn’t use the same large wagons as the Americans and the French. Instead, they used a seat mounted wagon where the driver could sit on the right side of the seat and still be able to lash the horses. Subsequently, they retained traveling on the left side of the road. In fact, Britain legislated a drive-left law in 1756, creating an ordinance governing traffic on London Bridge. The drive-left law extended to Scotland in 1772 and even imposed a fine of 20 shillings on infringers. In 1773 the British passed the General Highways Act which contained a keep-left recommendation to regulate horse traffic. This subsequently became law as part of the Highway Bill in 1835 and made the keep-left rule the law throughout the British Empire.
Many countries outside the influence of the British Empire also drove on the left. However, over time, and for a variety of reasons, many switched to driving on the right side of the road. For example, when Germany annexed Austria in 1938 it forced a change to keep-right, as it also did in Czechoslovakia in 1939. Sweden drove on the left side of the road until as late as 1967, when it switched. Many feel that this switch was due to the fact that the country produced Saabs and Volvos, and manufactured cars with steering wheels on the left for some countries as well as placing steering wheels on the right for others. The story goes that the two car companies got tired of the added expense of designing and manufacturing left and right drive models and decided to manufacture only their best-selling versions, which were those with a steering wheel on the left. In response to this the Swedish government changed from a drive-left country to a drive-right. While some believe this is the reason for Sweden’s transition, the more logical reason was that most of Sweden’s neighboring countries were all driving on the right and the Swedes felt that it was too confusing for its citizen to remember to now drive on the opposite side of the road when crossing the border into neighboring Norway, for example, or driving in a neighboring country who drove their cars on the left side of the road. Subsequently, Sweden decided to switch.
China changed to the right in 1946, as did Korea at the end of WW II when it passed from Japanese colonial rule. Pakistan was also considering such a change in the 1960s but eventually rejected it because camel caravans often traveled through the night while their drivers dozed. The country thought it would be too difficult teaching old camels new tricks and therefore decided to retain driving on the left!

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