Sunday, March 29, 2009


One of the first things anybody notices or remarks about when traveling in the UK is the fact that we drive on the left hand side of the road. However there is history and reasoning behind this.

In days of old logic dictated that when people passed each other on the road they should be in the best possible position to use their sword to protect them selves. As most people are right handed they therefore keep to their left.

This custom was given official sanction in 1300 AD, when Pope Boniface VIII invented the modern science of traffic control by declaring that pilgrims headed to Rome should “keep left”.

Nothing much changed until 1773 when an increase in horse traffic forced the UK Government to introduce the General Highways Act of 1773 which contained a keep left recommendation. This became a law as part of the Highways Bill in 1835.

Reasons to travel on the right are less clear but the generally accepted version of history is as follows: The French, being Catholics, followed Pope Boneface's edict but in the build up to the French Revolution in 1790 the French Aristocracy drove their carriages at great speed on the left hand side of the road, forcing the peasantry over to the right side for their own safety. Come the Revolution, instincts of self preservation resulted in the remains of the Aristocracy joining the peasants on the right hand side of the road.

Another reason was that when teamsters in the United States and France began hauling farm products in big wagons pulled by several pairs of horses.

These wagons had no driver's seat. Instead the driver sat on the left rear horse, so he could keep his right arm free to lash the team.

Since you were sitting on the left, naturally you wanted everybody to pass on the left so you could look down and make sure you kept clear of the other guy's wheels. Ergo, you kept to the right side of the road.

The first known keep-right law in the U.S. was enacted in Pennsylvania in 1792, and in the ensuing years many states and Canadian provinces followed suit.

In France the keep-right custom was established in much the same way. An added impetus was that, this being the era of the French Revolution and all, people figured, “hey, no pope is going tell ME what to do.”

Later Napoleon enforced the keep-right rule in all countries occupied by his armies. The custom endured even after the empire was destroyed.

Britain's imperial expansion (all of the pink bits on old maps) spread the keep left rule far and wide. This included India, Australasia and much of Africa (Although many countries have since changed to driving on the right when they became independent).

So why then, even in England, do boats keep right?
Good question with no clear answer, the favorite theory goes back to the fact that most people are right handed, if that was the case and if the boat was propelled and steered in the same way as a punt then you would want to sit on the right hand side and steer with a pole or board (might be where the word starboard comes from). If this is the case then you would keep to the right so that it is easier to reach the bank.


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  1. Well, that answers that question! Being an American, I always did wonder about that and when my daughter got her learner's permit, I used to tease her if she veered toward the left, "You're not driving in England."

  2. Fascinating explanation for right and left side traffic, but what about the ones who drive in the middle of the road? Where did they get their brainy idea?

    Morgan Mandel

  3. Ones that drive down the center of the road are Ambidextrous