Driving on the Left

Why do the British Driving on the Left?

There was a popular Norwegian joke about the Swedes switching over. In order to ease the transition, the Swedes decided that trucks would switch over on Sunday, November 3 while cars would switch over on Monday, November 4.

I was recently on vacation in England. Our tour guide to Stonehenge & Bath went through pretty much the same explanation as Cecil, staying on left to keep fighting side free, Napoleon going right, etc. He didn’t respond to my question that, if he admitted that most of the world drove on the right side of the road, doesn’t that mean the Brits are driving on the wrong side of the road?

Because that isn’t what it means. The correct side of the road is what’s correct where you are. He probably didn’t respond because it’s an inane comment made by every American who ever meets a British person, and it’s boring (and, indeed, boorish to go to another country and tell them they’re all “wrong”).

In North America, the task of keeping out of the ditch or swamp was more important early on than the task of avoiding other vehicles. The definitive reference work on this subject is

Kincaid, Peter. The Rule of the Road: An International Guide to History and Practice. Greenwood Press, 1986. ISBN 0-313-25249-1, LC 86-354.

Writes Kincaid: “In summary, different types of transport, all used by right-handed people, tended to produce different rules of the road. Armed walkers and armed horsemen tended to keep left to leave their swordarms free. Horse riders kept left in any case because they mounted from the left and stayed near the edge where it was easier and safer to mount and dismount than in the middle of the road. People leading horses with their right hands tended to keep right because the led horse was then protected from passing traffic. Carters tended to keep right because they walked on the left side of their horses, leading with the right hand, and by keeping right could walk in the middle of the road…to avoid collisions. Postilion riders tended to keep right because they sat on the left-rear horse and thus could better judge clearances…Drivers who sat on the vehicle kept left because they sat on the right to keep their whip hands free and could judge clearances better when passing if they kept left.”

Kincaid describes other contributing factors such as conformance with neighbors, influence of colonization, national unity, imported vehicles, etc. Although we tend to think of a keep-left rule requiring right-hand controls, and vice versa, he points out a number of instances where curbside controls have been preferred to centerline controls.

As of 1986, he counted 118 “independent territories” with right-hand traffic and 51 with left-hand, adding: “The above figures show what a minority rule left-hand traffic is today. Countries which use it account for only about a third of the world’s population, a sixth of its area, a quarter of its roads, and a sixth of its motor vehicles.” A number of countries have changed their rule of the road, including, since 1950: Cameroon, Belize, Ethiopia, Sweden, Bahrain, Iceland, Burma, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana, and South Yemen. All these but Burma changed from left to right.

The American expert on this subject is Richard H. Hopper, whose article “Left-Right: Why Driving Rules Differ,” appeared in Transportation Quarterly 36 (1982), pp. 541-548.

About Sweden… loathe though I am to correct Unca Cecil, he has been misinformed about the reason Sweden switched to right-side driving. The majority of cars in Sweden had the steering wheel on the left-hand side even before the switch, strange as that may sound, so there was no problem of growing “tired of having to make different versions for domestic use and export.” The reason Sweden changed was cross-border traffic with Norway and Finland and, by ferry, Denmark. These borders are all extremely open, and as the number of cars crossing them increased, so did the potential for confusion and accidents. By 1967 it was not only clear that Sweden would have to give in and switch sides, but that the longer they waited, the harder the change would be.

As it happens, although it was expensive and initially confusing, the changeover went ahead without any serious difficulties. The accident rate even went down slightly immediately after the switch - though temporarily lowered speed limits should probably have some of the credit for that.

And, of course, Great Britain continues to be an island.

And, speaking as a Yank who has driven there, it isn’t really all that hard to switch, at least if you switch control sides at the same time. (For the curious, the pedals are the same, so you don’t have to retrain your feet; so are most of the other controls, in fact, with the obvious exception of the center console.)

What gets really complicated is (or was) gender rules for pedestrians; various cultures have the woman on the left, the right, the road side, or the wall side (the traditional rule in the US).

Could the fact that the US started driving on the right in 1792 be construed as part of a “let’s change the British system and be independant” - it’s suspiciously close to 1776. Same as the French who changed just about everything including the side of the road they drove on at about the same time.

The numbers of left handers was considerable until Napoleon and then Hitler (Austria, parts of Czechoslovakia and, through his mate Mussolini, much of Italy) made their occupied lands conform. Indonesia was a Dutch, not British, colony and stayed on the left when the Netherlands changed. Please note that those countries that remain left handers tend to be independant, non revolutionary (excl. Indonesia) monarchies whereas right handers tend to be revolutionaries or victims of occupation or commercial imperialism (Canada and, in the 1960s, both Sweden and Iceland)

I remember a few years ago, the US complained to GATT (pre WTO) that Japan wasn’t buying any American cars, indeed sales of VW Golfs, just one model, exceeded all US cars. The answer was simple. Americans believed that everyone was like them or were quaintly different. The fact that a major country like Japan also drove on the left just like quaint old England had completely been ignored. The Germans, who already had a market in the UK, simply built more cars and shipped them to Japan.

It isn’t that anybody is wrong, but note that the vast majority of right handers have changed, the majority of left handers haven’t.

What are you talking about? More people drive on the right. To the extent that countries change, they overwhelmingly change from left to right. The exception, apparently, is Burma, a country which can’t even get its own name right.

The exception was notably buses, trams and vehicles owned by the post office.

Buh? You have gendered rules for pedestrians? I thought the rule for pedestrians in the US was “no sidewalks, you’re out of luck, this is a car-culture, why are you not driving a car? You must be crazy or poor!”:wink:

Seriously, what exactly are you referring to? The rule for pedestrians in Europe, and AFAIK, the UK, too, is that they walk on the sidewalk. I’ve never been told to keep to one side of the sidewalk because I’m a woman, and I would certainly resent it. If there’s lot of sidewalk traffic, people usually default to walking on the right, overtaking on the left, (blocking the sidewalk by being oblivious, stepping onto the bike path because you’re a dumb Yank tourist, …), but pedestrians can manevour around each other more easier than cars.

Or do you mean when walking on country roads which have no sidewalk? Then for right-hand traffic you walk on the left side of the road, so you can see oncoming cars early and avoid them by stepping onto the side. Why would gender be important? :confused:

I was always taught that when a gentleman is walking along the sidewalk with a lady, he should walk on the side closest to the road, to shield her from splashes or debris from passing vehicles.

So what do women and men do? See, we did away with all that “Lady” and “Gentleman” stuff during the 68 revolution, while empowering the women to walk alone if they wanted.

Gee, nobody told me. I still hold doors open and take off my hat (when I’m wearing one), and I’ve always received appreciative responses.

You should hold doors open for everyone, regardless of gender.

This is what he’s talking about. Right handers have changed from left handers. A more recent exception is Samoa, which changed to driving on the left on September 8, 2009.

As Samoa was a NZ protectorate from WWI to 1962, I’m surprised it stayed on the right until then. Also, all other British Empire colonies in the South Pacific drive on the left. The countries that don’t are part of France or former French-UK territory, i.e. Vanuatu.

Yes, but at other places and times, the rule has been the opposite, to shield her (or so they say) from falling slops. Or it has been to put the lady always on the right, or always on the left. Such is human perversity.

Point 1) A gentleman always holds a door open for a lady, if necessary he will overtake her to do so; he will hold the door open for another gentleman following him. Likewise, a gentleman will walk on the outside, nearest the traffic, protecting a lady from the effects of that traffic (and originally, from anything that was thrown out of an upstairs window into the street). Two gentlemen will walk on a first come first served “arrangement” side by side. A gentleman will give up his seat to a lady, an older person, or anyone whose needs exceed his own.

Good manners are purely kindness and respect.

In the ‘68 “revolution”, good manners became passé, respect became unfashionable and people just did what they wanted as that was their right and damn the consequences.

Point 2) Samoa (ex Western Samoa) drove on the right because a) they used to be German and b) the influence of neighbouring American Samoa. But most of the rest of the Pacific, except the French islands, drives on the left (including Indonesia and Japan).

Point 3) My point about changing from one side to the other was that most countries used to drive on the left. Of those that now drive on the right, the vast majority changed from left to right. If we wanted a united driving side, why should the steadfast follow the fickle? Why shouldn’t everyone drive on the left, it’s the natural side anyway (as shown by righties who take little time to drive on the left whereas lefties have to work at driving on the right).

PS I have spent the majority of my driving life driving on the right, but I learned to drive on the left. That makes me sort of bilingual?

Then why don’t they apply to everybody?

No, that’s not correct. In the 68 revolution, old-fashioned etiquette was thrown out, like the notion that women are fragile creatures that need a seat. Now seats are offered to elder or handicapped persons, but not to people with vaginas who are otherwise healthy. Doors are held open not only to people with boobies, but to every person behind you, and esp. to people carrying stuff.
And women are allowed to walk alone, unescorted, in the street, instead of staying at home waiting for gentlemen.

The women here I know much prefer the real freedom of being allowed to work and study and be alone over the old-fashioned “chivalry” of the 50s and 60s when they weren’t allowed to have a say in the raising of their children or over their bank account.

And our traffic is no longer horse-buggy, and stuff isn’t thrown out of the window, so people no longer need protection from that. If that were the case, the persons needing protection most would be children, but “etiquette” is silent about them. (They don’t count as real persons, I guess).

Manners are indeed kindness and respect, therefore they apply to everybody. Etiquette comes from chivalry, and is just a way of gilding that the men want sexual favours from the women (there was a well-written article in Teemings some years back about this).

The 68er stopped giving respect to people just because of age or position, and only gave respect to those who earned it by their character and integrity. Because treating somebody special when they don’t deserve it is not respect, but authoritarian obedience.

Most people I know who are hung up on “manners” simply do rule-following of etiquette without understanding or caring about the ideas behind those rules, so they end up holding the door open to the lady, and shouting at the waiter, because the waiter is not a real person in their world.

Meanwhile, the 68ers don’t doff their hat, but show the same kind of basic niceness towards the waiter as to the lady. Which means much more respect than the old -fashioned guys.

In the ‘68 "revolution"1, good manners became passé, respect became unfashionable and people just did what they wanted as that was their right2 and damn the consequences.

1 Yeah, protesting against the Vietnam War or masses held for Hitler? What were they thinking. :smack:
2 Consequences like equal pay or legal recourse against sexual harassment?