Why We Drive on the Right (or Wrong) Side of the Road
Driving on the right side of the road is the right way unless you’re in a country like the U.K., Australia, or Japan, right? If you’ve ever had to rent a car in London with a manual transmission, changing gears with your left hand is scary and can feel unnatural — unless you’re a lefty. Yet if you ask the Brits, we’re the crazy ones. So how did the world end up divided into left-side and right-side drivers? You may be surprised to find out that we, the right-side drivers, are wrong. Here’s a timeline of how it all got started.
The first real evidence of a keep-left or keep-right rule was found in the Roman Empire, with archaeological evidence suggesting Romans drove on the left side of the road. A Roman quarry in England had grooves in the road leading away from the quarry on the left that were significantly deeper than those on the right, suggesting the weight of the stone leaving the quarry was banking left.
You don’t have to be much of a history buff to know that the Dark Ages make the Wild West look like Sesame Street. People would pass on horse or foot in the most strategic possible position so they could use their sword if necessary. And with most people being right-handed, passing happened on the left. If you were a lefty, you were out of luck in a sword fight.
According to Valeri Helterbran’s book, Why Rattlesnakes Rattle: …and 250 Other Things You Should Know, Pope Bonifice VIII issued a papal decree in 1300 A.D. asking Christians and pilgrims to keep to the left. With most of Europe believing that the Pope was infallible back then, nobody raised much of a fuss.
An increase in horse traffic forced the U.K. government to introduce the General Highways Act of 1773, which contained a keep-left suggestion. As Britain colonized the world, they took their habits with them, creating left-side rules across Asia and Africa.
French aristocrats drove their carriages following the Pope’s edict of staying left. They would fly past peasants on the left, so the lower class got used to sticking to the right for safety’s sake. During the French Revolution, aristocrats hid among proletariat by keeping to the right, peasant-style. In 1794, it was officially decreed that staying to the right was the right thing to do in Paris. From then on, the world’s roads began to divide, according to English-style or French-style.
At the end of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan built its first railway between Yokohama and Tokyo, under the supervision of Englishman Edmund Morel. Naturally, with Britain’s help, it was built to the left, setting the left-side standard for Japan just as the country began to industrialize.
Karl Benz produced his first car, the Motorwagen, with a steering tiller in the middle. He only sold about 25, but it was enough for him to launch his company, Mercedes-Benz. Early cars on both sides of the Atlantic — like the 1896 Ford Quadricycle and the 1901 Oldsmobile Curved Dash — use the center-mounted tiller, but by the early 20th century, the always practical Germans (and Americans) begin adopting a left-side steering wheel to be driven on the right.
Ford changed its Model T from the steering wheel on the right to the steering wheel on the left. The company’s 1908 brochure explained the switch:
The control is located on the left side, the logical place, for the following reasons: Travelling along the right side of the road the steering wheel on the right side of the car made it necessary to get out on the street side and walk around the car. This is awkward and especially inconvenient if there is a lady to be considered. The control on the left allows you to step out of the car on to the curbing without having had to turn the car around. In the matter of steering with the control on the right, the driver is farthest away from the vehicle he is passing, going in opposite direction; with it on the left side he is able to see even the wheels of the other car and easily avoids danger.
Alfa Romeo and Lancia finally started producing cars with steering on the left. Before this, Lancias and Alfa Romeos — even in keep-right Italy — were manufactured as right-hand-drive. Italian manufacturers thought it was safer to have the steering wheel on the right for Alpine passes, so a driver could judge the edge of the cliff better. They changed their minds in the ’50s. Within a decade, the last of the right-hand-drive Italian market cars were produced.
It looks like we have French peasants to thank for driving on the righthand side. Today, about 65% of the world’s population live in countries with right-hand traffic, making the Brits and their ancient keep-left rule a minority. Two wrongs may not make a right, but 65% of the planet can’t be wrong.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.