The Curious Case of Driving on the Right vs. the Left

Contesoga Wagon by Randy Fath on Unsplash
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Many of us have had to adjust to driving on a particular side of the road when visiting different countries. Some people take it in their stride and switch over seamlessly, while others (like me) have a much more difficult time.

But have you ever wondered why Americans drive on the right side of the road, while the British stick to the left? I have. And I had always thought it had to do with the Americans wanting to do everything different from their erstwhile colonial masters. How wrong I was. This curious driving custom has a fascinating history that spans centuries and continents.

We need to go back to the earliest days of horse-drawn carriages and gallant knights. Back in medieval times, knights travelled on horseback. They would pass each other on the left side of the road, keeping their sword arms - typically their right arms - closest to any potential enemies, in case of an attack. This tradition was adopted by horse-drawn carriages later. The driver of the carriage sat on the left rear horse and being on the left side of the road gave him a wider view, to see oncoming traffic and made it easier for him to whip the horses.

Knights by Karthick B K on Unsplash

Knights by Karthick B K on Unsplash

However, as transportation evolved, things began to change. In the late 1700s, large wagons pulled by multiple horses became a common sight in France and the United States. In the US these were known as Conestoga Wagons, which had arched cloth roofs. They are a constant and iconic part of any western movie you may have seen because these wagons were used by the early pioneers moving to the western frontier. They had to be big because they carried everything the travellers owned, plus food and rations. But before they were used by the pioneers, they were used to trade goods with Native Americans.

The drivers of these wagons, who sat on the left rear horse, preferred to pass on the right side, as it gave them a better view of the road ahead. Or they sat on a board called a lazy board on the side of the wagon. Often, they also walked alongside the wagon. Now most people are right-handed, so it was more efficient for the driver to sit on the board or to walk on the left side to be able to control the horse’s reins and other ropes, which logically had to be on the left side to be closer to the driver’s right hand. This shift towards right-side driving eventually led to it becoming the norm in the United States, as traffic increased, and road laws were enacted.

Responding to this trend, the Ford Motor Company put the steering wheel on the left side of the Model T in 1908. With the driver’s seat on the left, it made sense for cars to drive on the right side of the road, allowing passengers to easily exit the vehicle onto the curb. This change was quickly adopted by many countries, including Canada, Italy, and Spain, in the 1920s and 1930s.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the trend remained committed to the left-side. In 1773, the British introduced the General Highways Act, which encouraged driving on the left, and this was later made law in 1835. This decision was likely influenced by the country’s long-standing tradition of left-side travel, as well as the fact that many of their colonies, such as Australia, New Zealand, and India had also adopted this practice.

Now in Europe, we have Napoleon to thank for the right-side trend. His military campaigns there hugely impacted transportation and logistics. The French revolutionary government in the 18th century, under Maximilien Robespierre, dictated that everyone should drive on the right side of the road. Before this, the custom was for the wealthier classes - who travelled by carriages and horseback - to drive on the left side of the road. The poor people did not have these luxuries, so they walked, and these pedestrians were relegated to the right side. By forcing everyone to the same side of the road, the French revolutionaries were not only improving traffic flow, but also doing away with these class-based distinctions, with which everyone eventually agreed, including the wealthier classes.

This French policy is said to have been spread by Napoleon as his armies marched through Europe. Having recognised the importance of efficient supply lines, he established the train d’artillerie, a specialised corps responsible for transporting artillery and supplies. These wagon trains were crucial to the success of the French Grande Armée, as they allowed Napoleon’s forces to move quickly and be less dependent on fixed supply lines. This way he brought the French custom of driving on the right side to the rest of Europe.

One nation however remained independent from Napoleon’s influence and kept to the British custom: Sweden. In 1967, Sweden eventually switched from left side to right side driving, costing the government USD 120 million.

The use of wagon trains in the United States and the influence of Napoleon’s military campaigns in Europe played a significant role in the development of driving customs on both sides of the Atlantic.

So, the next time you find yourself driving in the UK, remember that you’re not just following the rules of the road - you’re also participating in a centuries-old tradition that has shaped the driving habits of nations around the world.

Sources

1. www.rd.com/article/why-drive-on-different-sides-of-the-road/

2. www.cnn.com/2024/03/02/business/why-americans-drive-on-the-right-and-the-british-on-the-left/index.html

3. www.warhistoryonline.com/napoleon/8-changes-napoleon-made-warfare.html

4. www.southernliving.com/news/americans-brits-drive-opposite-sides-road

5. www.rd.com/article/why-drive-on-different-sides-of-the-road/

6. www.cnn.com/2024/03/02/business/why-americans-drive-on-the-right-and-the-british-on-the-left/index.html

I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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