This is Why Brits Drive on the Left, and the Reason is Ancient and a Bit Scary

Photo: Alex Proimos [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Did you know that 2/3 of the world drives on the right-hand side of the road? Many countries, including the United States, prefer it this way. Other countries, including the United Kingdom, drive on the left side, however.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you’re a curious person, you’re going to wonder how that came to be. It turns out, the reason for driving on the left goes back many hundreds of years, maybe thousands, to a time long before cars.

When passing another chariot, the rider must always be prepared to fight an enemy at a moment’s notice.

Weapon side out

There is archaeological evidence that shows Roman chariots, carts and people on horseback typically passed to the left of each other. The theory behind this is simple: Your right hand was typically your dominant hand, and the the one that holds a weapon. When passing another chariot, the rider must always be prepared to fight an enemy at a moment’s notice.

This applied later in medieval times to knights on horseback with swords, and pretty much any other person who might carry a weapon with their right arm.

Roman road rage

This is the theory, anyway. This practice would have stuck around into the middle ages and become common practice in Europe.

France and America

In the 18th century, England passed laws that required riders to stay on the left side, but France began using the right side of the road after the Revolution, and took this practice with them to the countries Napoleon invaded. To avoid confusion, many of the remaining European nations switched over, too.

In 18th century America, wagon riders typically sat on the left side of the wagon. Why? So you could whip your horses with your right hand, of course. This meant that it was much safer to pass another wagon on the right side, to avoid drivers smashing their wheels together.

Cars

America was one of the first major manufacturers and exporters of the automobile, and because the vehicles were all designed with American drivers in mind, the steering wheel was put on the left, better suited for driving on the right side of the road.

Shipping these cars outside the U.S. meant that other countries would more or less have to drive in accordance with those designs, too. Thus you have many more countries driving on the right side of the road.

So whether you’re a right-side or a left-side driver, there are fascinating reasons for why you are one and not the other. Fortunately, however, no one these days needs to be wielding a sword, ready to fight oncoming drivers. We just shout at each other, and we can do that from either side.

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