We all know that our friends across the pond drive on the left side of the road. But the practice is not solely British — roughly one-third of the world’s population drives on the left side of the road. In fact, traveling on the left was common dating all the way back to the Roman Empire.
The question that begs answering isn’t why do we drive on the right side of the road, but rather why did we stop traveling on the left? A quick history refresher shows why most of the world made the shift and why certain countries have not.
Early Travelers Stayed to the Left
Traveling on the left side of the road began before there were paved roads or cars – or even the thought of paved roads or cars, for that matter. Archaeological evidence suggests the ancient Romans drove carts and chariots on the left, likely so they could hold a weapon with their dominant right hands and more easily reach an enemy. The practice was kept alive in Europe all the way through the Middle Ages.
Up until the 1700s, traveling on the left side was customary, but neither exclusive nor mandatory anywhere in the world. That began to change in the second half of the century when, in 1773, the British government passed the General Highways Act, which encouraged driving on the left. The practice became law with the enactment of the Highway Act of 1835.
But other corners of Europe seemed to prefer keeping to the right. In pre-revolutionary France, the aristocracy rode on the left, with the peasantry to their right. Once the revolution started, however, nobles wanted to hide their identities and joined their fellow countrymen and women on the right side of the road. Right-side traveling became the law in Paris before the close of the 18th century.
Colonialism Spreads Driving Customs
Both Britain and France, and their respective invasions and colonialism, would prove to have an enormous effect on driving habits around the world. When Napoleon was in charge of the French army, he ordered newly conquered countries to stay to the right. (There’s a theory he preferred this method because he was left-handed.) France’s conquests covered large swaths of Europe including nations like Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Poland and Spain.
Great Britain was busy expanding its empire at this time, as well. As a result, it brought its left-side practice to all corners of the globe, including Australia, New Zealand, India and the West Indies. (Britain also later influenced Japan to travel on the left when British engineers helped build the country’s first railways in the late 1800s.)
Why Do Americans Drive on the Right Side of the Road?
It would be easy to think the practice of driving on the left side came over the Atlantic in the 1600s with the early European settlers. After all, America’s first Colonists in Jamestown and Plymouth were from England. But that doesn’t seem to have been the case. Albert C. Rose, who served as “unofficial historian” of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads during the agency’s early years, found that “all available evidence seems to indicate that the RIGHT-HAND travel predominated in Colonial America from the time of the earliest settlements.”
One possible reason early Colonial Americans eschewed the left-side rule was due to, as Rose describes, a “smoldering opposition to customs of the Old World.” Remember, many English settlers were escaping persecution in their home country. Additionally, other European countries were establishing settlements in America and implementing their own practices.
But the most significant impetus for traveling on the right in America came the following century with the introduction freight wagons. These vehicles were pulled by a team of horses and usually didn’t have a driver’s seat. Operators typically sat on the rear left horse, in order to hold a whip in their right hand and be able to reach the other horses. Over time, wagon drivers naturally began to gravitate toward the right side so they would be positioned closer to the center of the road. This gave them a better view of oncoming traffic, reducing the likelihood of a collision.
By the late 1700s, staying to the right was common practice in America, yet there was still no rule or law dictating it. The first known legal requirement to do so came in 1792, when Pennsylvania enacted legislation to build a turnpike from Lancaster to Philadelphia. The document stated traffic must travel on the right side of the road. Twelve years later, New York became the first state to require right-hand travel on all public highways.
Driving on the Right, Sitting on the Left
By the start of the Civil War, the right-hand rule was followed in every state, according to the Federal Highway Administration. However, many drivers of light horse-drawn wagons both drove on the right and sat on the right side of their vehicles. They did this in order to get a better view of another potential danger: roadside ditches. Indeed, many considered running into these ditches to be more dangerous than colliding with another vehicle.
When automobiles were first introduced in the late 1800s, they were thought of as horseless wagons. As such, most American cars produced before 1910 had steering wheels on the right side of the vehicle.
It wasn’t until Ford released the Model T in 1908 that operating a vehicle while positioned on the left side began to become common practice. The revolutionary car was one of the first automobiles to have a left-side steering wheel. Within a few years, the Model T had become so popular nearly every other automobile manufacturer was putting the driver’s seat on the left. More than a century later, the practice remains.
Want more automotive history? Head to AAA.com to learn about the origins of everything from stop signs to car horns.