Column: How we came to drive on the ‘right’ side of the road
We kind of plod along, thoroughly preoccupied with the daily grind of our lives, and accept as normal the oddities that pop up in our paths.
It’s against my nature to accept them; at least, once I notice them. I’ve always noticed that cars in Great Britain drive on the opposite side of the road from us. Obviously, they’re wrong about that. We’re Americans; we’re always right.
But not six or seven hundred years ago. Then, Britain was always right, and just to prove it, they pretty much ruled the world. Their systems were everywhere – money, measurement, sailing the high seas. It was us Americans who proved to be fickle.
In the Middle Ages (which America didn’t have, of course) in Europe, you kept to the left side of the road because your sword hand was usually your right, and should the occasional passerby have your purse in mind, you were ready to sword fight him off.
Then, the Catholics got involved when, in 1300 AD, the Pope took over traffic control and declared that all pilgrims headed to Rome must keep to the left side of the road. That lasted into the 1700s.
In the USA, as farms began producing huge amounts of grain, large farm wagons hauling that grain and other materials did so behind several pairs of horses. These wagons had no driver’s seat. Instead, the driver sat on the left rear horse, which kept his right arm free so that he could lay the whip about even better. Since he was sitting on the left, when his wagon met another wagon coming his way, he had them to his left, the better to make certain that his left wagon wheels didn’t crash into someone else’s as they met. Now, we (who are always right) were on the right. That set a new precedent. (Along with France, who would do anything they could as long as it was opposite to anything Britain did.)
In Pennsylvania, in 1792, the first keep-right law was enacted. Many states, and Canada, followed suit. Amusingly enough, Napoleon, the product of the French Revolution, figured out that no Pope was going to tell him which side to drive on, and they began to drive on the right side, too. Napoleon controlled quite a few countries before he was destroyed, and they too accepted the right side driving thing.
England didn’t use the monster wagons that we did. Instead, the wagons had a seat. The driver usually sat on the right side of the seat so his whip didn’t become entangled in the load behind him as he cracked it at the horses. In 1756, London passed an ordinance governing traffic on the London Bridge, stating that it must stay to the left. The British Empire followed suit. India, Indonesia, and others still keep to the left. In 1859, the English minister to Japan accomplished little except for convincing Japan to drive on the left, although Japan makes Toyota and Mitsubishi and other cars for us, who drive on the right side.
When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, it brutally suppressed that country’s left-hand side of the road rules, forcing them to the right, along with Czechoslovakia and other countries which came under Hitler’s rule.
The last holdouts in Europe, the Swedes, finally switched to the right side of the road in 1967 because they became tired of making Saabs and Volvos with the steering wheel all over the place.
I’ll bet you feel better knowing this.
The Prairie Spy - Alan "Lindy" Linda