Why do the British drive on the left?
As today is my 60th birthday I thought I would celebrate by pondering one of those really fundamental questions, why do we in Britain drive on the left when so many of our continental brethren drive on the right?
In the good old days there were only two ways of getting around – Shanks’ pony or on horseback. If you were a knight and were on horseback (and right-handed) you would want to ensure that your sword hand was unencumbered to enable you to defend yourself against attackers. It was also easier to get off your mount on the left, particularly if you had a sword in the way. This meant that horseriders naturally preferred to ride on the left hand side of the pathway, a practice which had been enshrined in legislation by 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII.
Things became a bit more complicated around the 18th century when horse-drawn waggons were used to convey heavy loads, drawn by teams of horses. The driver didn’t have a seat but rode the left rear horse, leaving his right arm free to wield the whip. What it meant was that the driver sitting on the left, was happier if everyone passing him did so on the left. In other words, they adopted a preference for driving on the right hand side.
What gave a real impetus to the driving on the right movement was the French revolution of 1789 and subsequent events. The French aristocracy had traditionally ridden on the left, forcing the peasants to travel on the right. When the sans culottes gained the ascendancy in 1789 they made driving on the right de rigueur. Napoleon’s rampages across Europe introduced the trend of driving on the right to many of our European friends.
Naturally in Britain we eschewed everything that smacked of foreign ways and steadfastly stuck to our guns, ploughing our furrows on the left. The practice was enshrined in legislation here in 1835 and just as Boney had done, we introduced the custom of driving on the left to those parts of the world that had the good fortune to come under the yoke of enlightenment, otherwise known as the British empire. That is why some 35% of the world’s population including countries such as India, Australia and New Zealand and some African countries drive on the left to this day. Showing the laissez-faire for which we are famed some countries such as Egypt which moved from French to British control were allowed to retain their French customs.
The Japanese, who were never British subjects, still drive on the left. This is due to their Samurai heritage – they too needed to have their sword hand free – but it wasn’t until 1872 that this unwritten custom became official, a year which coincided with the Brits helping the Japanese build their railways. It became enshrined in law in 1924.
The Americans, of course, drive on the right. Initially, when it was a British colony the inhabitants drove on the left but following their rebellion in 1776 they eschewed all practices they associated with their colonial masters. Of course, the influx of settlers from European countries who had been subjected to the dread influence of the French also helped. The state of Pennsylvania was the first to pass legislation that required people to drive on the right (in 1792), followed by New York (1804) and New Jersey (1813).
The answer then is due to knights, Napoleon and British perversity. So now we know!