Driving … Left or Right

Hansom cab 1877 If you’ve ever been in a car, you’ve noticed there’s a certain widely practiced custom. Everybody sends their car down one preferred side of the road — left or right — depending on what country they happen to be in. Drivers are pretty consistent about this, and thus everybody’s somewhat less likely to ram into another car nose-to-nose.

 Sticking to your side of the road . . . it’s not just a good idea. It’s the law. 

Thomas_Rowlandson_Miseries_of_London

A more complicated view of traffic

 About 65% of the world keeps to the right — this is the US and Canada, and about all of South and Central America, Europe and China.
The other 35% of humanity drive to the left. This is significantly the United Kingdom, Ireland, India, and Australia.

 In one of those weird coincidence-type things, folks who live on islands are mostly left handers.  Go figure

 Are there are ancient usages involved?

PompeiiStreet

one of those Roman streets

There are those who say the Romans drove on the left, taking as evidence wear in a tract leading to a Roman quarry in Swindon. And if we’re willing to look at 1300 as an indication of ancient custom, in that year Pope Boniface VIII set rules for keeping to one side on the bridges of Rome.

Both of those seem to have favored left-hand diving. (Point for England.)

Drivers meeting 1903

drivers meeting

There is much back-and-forth speculation about whether armed men would be more likely to quarrel if they walked to the left or right of each other. Did army units have to pass each other on the left so they wouldn’t come to blows? Did jousting make folks in mule carts want to copy the style? 

Do you know what I think?

I think before about the Eighteenth Century, folks mixed it up. They walked left, right, and center, and wove back and forth to avoid pot holes in the road. The narrow alleys of the cities were a right disorganized shambles where carts were lucky to pass at all, regardless of who was on the left or right.

I think troops of armed men marched right down the center of the road and everybody else scampered out of their way.

Cdets marching

army marching where it chooses

In the Eighteenth Century they got around to making laws for the ordering of traffic. England made a general recommendation that all horse traffic should keep to the left. Russia issued an edict for traffic to keep to the right. In Revolutionary France also, traffic was required to drive to the right.

So why don’t we have a patchwork of left- and right- hand driving across the nations of Europe with everybody nipping from one lane to the other at every border crossing?

We can blame this — and so much else — on Napoleon. When he conquered his way across Europe he brought metrification, robust Burgundies, and right-hand driving with him. Only England, unconquered, stayed left-handed, (and unmetrified.)

Australia followed the left-hand driving custom of England.  The United States and Canada — who knows why — chose right-hand.

So …are you one of those people who enjoy getting behind the wheel and taking off … or is driving a chore?

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