Readers of last month’s article with some knowledge of the French language will realize that this probably isn’t about ‘holding the clumsy.’ However, the handedness discussion the article contained is surprisingly relevant to what seems to many Americans to be a quaint British custom—that of driving on the wrong side of the road. I should add that I am British, spending over half my life there, as well as nearly 40 years in the U.S., and I claim to be qualified to address this topic, having long driven on both left and right sides of the road, sometimes even the wrong side in the country I was in.

The practice of driving on the left is not limited to Britain, in fact, there are 35 countries that drive this way, but more of that later. It harks back to a time long before the horse-less carriage came into existence, when mobility relied on the horse. First off, as we saw last month, 90 percent of the population is right-handed and therefore mount a horse from the left side, throwing the right (dominant) leg over the horse’s back. Similarly, when dismounting, they do so to the left side of the horse. It was natural, therefore, to ride the horse on the left side of the road so that a dismounting rider didn’t end up in the middle of the road with a troop of the King’s cavalry galloping toward him.

While the above is one aspect of which side of the road it was best to be on, another is just as important. The Middle Ages was not without its laws, but it was a time when even the wrong comment could put you at the pointy end of a very long, sharp blade, and it behooved men to be prepared to defend themselves, not just in battle, but at all times, usually with a sword. Swords were worn in a scabbard belted to the left side of a right-handed man so that he could draw the sword with his dominant hand. With a scabbard and sheathed sword to his left, it was far easier for a man to mount and dismount a horse from its left side. Even the Romans are believed to have steered their carts and chariots with the left hand to free up their right for attack or defense. Oddly enough, this also dictates which side of a woman a man should walk in case the need arises to defend her. One wonders how the left-handed fared in all this, but who cared about those sinister folks in the Middle Ages.

Geopolitics has been blamed for many things in the world, so let’s add the controversy of which side of the road we should drive on. The British Empire dates from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 until the 1940s, when my birth obviously began its dissolution. During this time, its dominions encircled the globe and British customs were employed in all the countries of the Empire. This included which side of the road to ride or drive on. Hence, India, Australia, New Zealand, parts of Asia, and former colonies in Africa drive left to the present day. Canada had a hybrid system where the English speaking west drove on the left and French speaking Quebec on the right, but eventually switched wholly to the right (in the 1920s) in line with the U.S. Newfoundland drove on the left until 1947. Interestingly, the Japanese also drive on the left, but for reasons arising from their own history.

In the late 1700s, in both America and France, freight was shifted in large wagons drawn by several pairs of horses. The wagons had no driver’s seat and he was mounted on the left rear horse so that he could control the team with the whip in his right hand. In that position, it was natural to want to drive on the right side of the road so that he could look down to his left and ensure the wheels of his wagon and any oncoming wagons cleared each other. In any case, following the War of Independence, the U.S. had no wish to continue to emulate the British, and between 1792 and 1815, states including Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey enacted laws requiring driving on the right.

Napoleon Bonaparte, a left-handed, young Corsican soldier, rose rapidly through the ranks during the French Revolution (1789-99). He was a brilliant military leader conquering much of Europe and became Emperor of France between 1804-1814 and again in 1815. His conquests spread right-side driving to Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, and parts of Spain and Italy. The opposing states comprising Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Portugal retained the British protocol and this division existed for more than a century. Eventually, all European nations switched to the right; Portugal in 1928, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1939 and 1944 respectively, after invasion by Germany. Sweden was the oddball in Scandinavia, famously not switching from left to right until 5 am on September 3 1967. Watch the time stamp on the video referenced below.1

The advent of motor vehicles meant their design had to adapt to the customs of various countries to facilitate sales. Steering wheels and foot pedals change from one side to the other, although the order of the pedals, left to right, does not change for obvious safety reasons. Something that also doesn’t change is the position of the gear stick—it always remains in the center. During my career in Britain, I recall being temporarily allotted a manual gearshift car from France to drive on British roads, with the steering wheel and pedals on the left instead of the right. This presents a difficulty in overtaking in left-side driving as the driver can’t see around the vehicle in front as easily. The most awkward thing for me, however, was using the manual gearshift with my right hand instead of the left, as I was used to in British cars. Automatic cars alleviate this problem by removing the need to continually shift the gears and are strongly recommended for any novice American driver in Britain; it’s one less thing to have to contend with.

For Americans who plan to drive in Britain, there are, of course, many other detail things to remember (or learn by experience) especially regarding roundabouts: there will be a “Give Way” sign (meaning “Yield” to traffic from the right) and a dashed line where you should wait if there is traffic from that direction (but not otherwise). Early in my American wife’s driving experience in the UK, she drove directly onto a roundabout, realized her mistake and compounded it by braking to a halt broadside onto the traffic flow. I was dozing and a small scream awakened me to see two lines of traffic coming at us from the right, fortunately those drivers were alert and screeched to a halt, but made their opinions about this quite clear. There are very many roundabouts in Britain and you drive around clockwise (don’t worry, if you choose to go the American, counter-clockwise way, you will rapidly realize your mistake!).

I drive in both the U.S. and Britain in normal years and switching from one system to another requires little adjustment—you just follow the traffic. In getting used to opposite side driving, it is very useful to remember that whatever the legal side to drive, the driver, just like those French wagon teamsters, should be in the “middle” of the road.

  1. Sweden’s switch:

© David Cuin 2021