As a Brit abroad I’m often told that we “drive on the wrong side of the road”. This is very annoying to say the least, even more so since it is by the ill informed.
Around 66% of global traffic now drives on the right hand side of the road. This however is something which has evolved over the last few hundred years. Historically driving on the left was the norm and for countries such as England, with a long history we are keeping the tradition alive.
Often I am mocked (tamely) since my country is in the minority of countries driving on the left. Yet there appears to be more reasonable justification, on logic and safety for driving on the left as opposed to the right hand side. I’m not saying that the majority of countries are wrong, just that they shouldn’t be so darn arrogant and critical of our history and ways.
Students of the history of driving will be familiar with the explanation as to why we drive on the left. In the time before cars people travelled around on horseback or by horse and carriage. Since they were less civil times you often found people who were armed with weaponry whilst travelling.
If you imagine the historical joust between two knights. They both approach from the left side so they can carry their lance in their right hand. After all the majority of us are right handed.
In the same way someone riding on horseback would draw their sword with their right hand from a sheath on their left. This would be an occur as a way of attack or defence against an oncoming enemy.
There is also a claim that riding (driving) on the left hand side allowed you to offer a hand of friendship/peace to oncoming traffic. It makes sense to me; how many times have you used your left hand to shake hands with someone?
In fact, in Swindon, England there was a very historic discovery made in 1998. An old Roman quarry was discovered and the dirt/road tracks were investigated. It was found that the roads leading away from the quarry showed much deeper grooves on the left hand side of the road. It is believed that this was caused by the carts carrying the heavy aggregates away from the site on the left side of the road.
The practice of travelling down a road on the left hand side was a Papal Edict from Pope Benefice around the year 1300. It even became the official law in the UK in 1835 with the passing of the Highways Bill.
Driving on the left hand side is also cited as a safer way to travel. This is the conclusion drawn by J.J. Leming in his study of driving habits in 1969. He found that there was a lower collision rate in left hand side driving countries than those who drive on the right.
It is believed that since most of us are right handed and right-eye dominant, it is easier to see the view of the road ahead of us. It is also easier to check from the side of our eyes into our wing mirrors for overtaking by passing cars on the right. Based on this theory driving on the right hand side of the road could be considered as driving on the wrong side of the road.
Historically it is taken as a fact that we all used to drive on the left. Get it? We didn’t drive on the wrong side of the road. So, you are probably wondering why the majority of countries now drive on the right?
I suppose you have to look at the case in each country to understand why. There are claims that Napoleon hated the British so much that when he conquered a country he made them drive on the right. Napoleon made it his policy to tell people that the left side was the wrong side of the road.
It is believed that the French moved towards driving on the right hand side around 1790 during the build up to the French Revolution. It was a reactionary move by the peasantry. The aristocracy used to drive in their carriages so fast that this forced the slower moving peasants out of the way. Hence they ended up on the right hand side of the road. A keep right rule was introduced in Paris in 1794.
I’ve heard from a Dutch colleague that the Netherlands used to drive on the left. It was only once Germany invaded during the second world war that Hitler imposed driving on the right hand side. Similar claims have been made with regard to Austria and Czechoslovakia in the 1930s.
Nowadays, many countries have moved to driving on the right side of the road just to fit in with neighbouring countries. Can you imagine the chaos at land borders where you have to suddenly change the side of the road you are on?
It works both ways though as Samoa switched from right to left in 2009 to fit in with the driving habits of neighbours.
There are many notable countries who still (and rightly in my mind) drive on the left. Not only do you have the U.K. and Ireland but there are countries such as South Africa, Australia, Thailand, India, Malaysia and Japan.
I’m fairly well versed in the reasons to why we drive on the side we do. I’m also very adamant that we in the U.K. do in fact drive on the correct side of the road. So the next time some cocky German or American tries to make a snide remark I’ll just remind them “We don’t drive on the wrong side of the road, you just drive on the right.”