Why Do Americans and Brits Drive on Different Sides of the Road?

The British custom of driving on the left side of the road isn't a sign of eccentricity—there's actually a very sensible reason for it.

Why-Do-Americans-and-Brits-Drive-on-Different-Sides-of-the-Roadshutterstock/llaszlo, shutterstock/GParker

Have you ever wondered why we drive on a different side of the road than our British cousins? It might seem bizarre that U.K. drivers stay on the left, but they’re not the only ones. Around 35 percent of the world population does the same, including people in Ireland, Japan, and some Caribbean islands.

Originally, almost everybody traveled on the left side of the road, according to BBC America. However their mode of transport was quite different from today: Think four legs instead of four wheels. For Medieval swordsmen on horseback, it made sense to keep to the left to have their right arms closer to their opponents. (Presumably the 10 to 15 percent of left-handed knights just had to make it work.) Mounting and dismounting was also easier from the left side of the horse, and safer done by the side of the road than in the center. (Here’s why you should always open a car door with your left hand.)

So perhaps the question here should be, why did people stop traveling on the left?

Things changed in the late 1700s when large wagons pulled by several pairs of horses were used to transport farm products in France and the United States. In the absence of a driver’s seat inside the wagon, the driver sat on the rear left horse, with his right arm free to use his whip to keep the horses moving. Since he was sitting on the left, he wanted other wagons to pass on his left, so he kept to the right side of the road.

The British Government refused to give up their left-hand driving ways, and in 1773 introduced the General Highways Act, which encouraged driving on the left. This was later made law thanks to The Highway Act of 1835. Meanwhile post-revolution France, under their left-handed ruler Napoleon, embraced a permanent move to the right side of the road. Amidst all this driving confusion, the British and the French were yielding their power across the globe, and as part of their rapid colonization they insisted that the countries they occupied drove on the same side of the road. This explains why former British colonies such as Australia, New Zealand, and India drive on the left, while former French colonies like Algeria, Ivory Coast, and Senegal drive on the right.

When Henry Ford unveiled his Model T in 1908, the driver’s seat was on the left, meaning that cars would have to drive on the right hand side of the road to allow front and back passengers to exit the car onto the curb. According to National Geographic, this influenced a change in many countries: Canada, Italy, and Spain changed to right-side driving in the 1920s and most of Eastern Europe followed suit in the 1930s. As recently as 1967 (and thanks to around $120 million from their government’s pocket) Swedish drivers began driving on the right. However British drivers remain on the left, and this is highly unlikely to change.

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