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British driving on the left side of the road

The left tradition started with Pope Boniface

Don’t ask me what southpaws did. Maybe this is why there are so few of them around nowadays. - Image by Rick Geary
Don’t ask me what southpaws did. Maybe this is why there are so few of them around nowadays.

I’ve just returned from a vacation in the Bahamas. After almost killing myself and my girlfriend while driving, I began to wonder why there and in England, etc., the steering wheel is on the right side of the car and people drive on the left side of the road. Do you know? — Z. Martinez, El Paso, TX

With enough gringos on the road at the same time, I imagine the place looks like the set of a Keystone Kops movie from time to time. But consider, Z., that anyone from ancient Greece or 14th-century Rome could have jumped behind the wheel of your Bahamian rent-a-buggy and probably felt right at home. Until 1800 or so, just about everybody stuck to the left-hand side for mostly practical reasons. If you carried a dagger or a sword, you hung it on your left side so you could grab it easily with your right hand to defend yourself. Moving to the left of the road kept both your drawn sword and any oncoming mean-looking vatos on your dominant side. (Don’t ask me what southpaws did ’cause I don’t know. Maybe this is why there are so few of them around nowadays.) There’s a related subtheory that says people who wore swords on the left started the tradition of mounting a horse from its left side (so they wouldn’t get tripped up by their scabbards) and, therefore, riding down the left side of the road. The two theories are not incompatible.

Pope Boniface VIII in the 1300s seems to be responsible for turning the tradition into a law, of sorts. He declared that pilgrims making their way to Rome must stick to the left -hand side of the road, and apparently everyone else in Europe went along with the deal, no matter where they were going. If there were any rebellious soreheads, they most likely decided it wasn’t worth fighting all the oncoming traffic just to prove a point with the pope. Napoleon Bonaparte was the first person to defy the tradition and declare France (and her territories) right-side countries, and he definitely was trying to prove a point with the pope.

The most common explanation for why the U.S. drives on the right has always seemed pretty lame to me. But less lame than some of the others, so here it is. Freight wagons in Colonial America were drawn by a half-dozen or so horses hitched in pairs. The driver would sit on the left-hand horse in the last pair so he could keep the reins and whip on his right side. When wagons passed on narrow roads, they would move to the right so the drivers would have a clear view of the axles and avoid any sideswipes. Pennsylvania actually made this a law in the 1790s, the first state to do so. Apparently, British wagons had right-hand-side drivers’ seats in keeping with their long-established traffic pattern.

When cars appeared on the scene, countries that were part of the British Commonwealth (and some of their neighbors) followed British tradition. Canada has actually had both systems in place at the same time; each province was free to choose. But sensible folks that they are, by the time cars started to dominate their roads, Canadians figured they could only afford to have one system in place and they sided with the Americans.

In your demolition derby frenzy, Z., you may not have appreciated that even though British cars have the steering wheel on the right, they have the gas, brake, and clutch pedals in the same order we’re used to. (I don’t know why. I don’t care why. Don’t bother to ask. Imagine the brain cramp you’d have gotten if they, too, were reversed.

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Don’t ask me what southpaws did. Maybe this is why there are so few of them around nowadays. - Image by Rick Geary
Don’t ask me what southpaws did. Maybe this is why there are so few of them around nowadays.

I’ve just returned from a vacation in the Bahamas. After almost killing myself and my girlfriend while driving, I began to wonder why there and in England, etc., the steering wheel is on the right side of the car and people drive on the left side of the road. Do you know? — Z. Martinez, El Paso, TX

With enough gringos on the road at the same time, I imagine the place looks like the set of a Keystone Kops movie from time to time. But consider, Z., that anyone from ancient Greece or 14th-century Rome could have jumped behind the wheel of your Bahamian rent-a-buggy and probably felt right at home. Until 1800 or so, just about everybody stuck to the left-hand side for mostly practical reasons. If you carried a dagger or a sword, you hung it on your left side so you could grab it easily with your right hand to defend yourself. Moving to the left of the road kept both your drawn sword and any oncoming mean-looking vatos on your dominant side. (Don’t ask me what southpaws did ’cause I don’t know. Maybe this is why there are so few of them around nowadays.) There’s a related subtheory that says people who wore swords on the left started the tradition of mounting a horse from its left side (so they wouldn’t get tripped up by their scabbards) and, therefore, riding down the left side of the road. The two theories are not incompatible.

Pope Boniface VIII in the 1300s seems to be responsible for turning the tradition into a law, of sorts. He declared that pilgrims making their way to Rome must stick to the left -hand side of the road, and apparently everyone else in Europe went along with the deal, no matter where they were going. If there were any rebellious soreheads, they most likely decided it wasn’t worth fighting all the oncoming traffic just to prove a point with the pope. Napoleon Bonaparte was the first person to defy the tradition and declare France (and her territories) right-side countries, and he definitely was trying to prove a point with the pope.

The most common explanation for why the U.S. drives on the right has always seemed pretty lame to me. But less lame than some of the others, so here it is. Freight wagons in Colonial America were drawn by a half-dozen or so horses hitched in pairs. The driver would sit on the left-hand horse in the last pair so he could keep the reins and whip on his right side. When wagons passed on narrow roads, they would move to the right so the drivers would have a clear view of the axles and avoid any sideswipes. Pennsylvania actually made this a law in the 1790s, the first state to do so. Apparently, British wagons had right-hand-side drivers’ seats in keeping with their long-established traffic pattern.

When cars appeared on the scene, countries that were part of the British Commonwealth (and some of their neighbors) followed British tradition. Canada has actually had both systems in place at the same time; each province was free to choose. But sensible folks that they are, by the time cars started to dominate their roads, Canadians figured they could only afford to have one system in place and they sided with the Americans.

In your demolition derby frenzy, Z., you may not have appreciated that even though British cars have the steering wheel on the right, they have the gas, brake, and clutch pedals in the same order we’re used to. (I don’t know why. I don’t care why. Don’t bother to ask. Imagine the brain cramp you’d have gotten if they, too, were reversed.

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