Curious Questions: Why do the British drive on the left?

The rest of Europe drives on the right, so why do the British drive on the left? Martin Fone, author of 'Fifty Curious Questions', investigates.

Here in Britain we like to think we are a cut above the rest, and we revel in those differences that mark out the way we do things from those of our continental brethren.

Take driving. Why do we in Britain drive on the left when so many other countries favour the right?

In the good old days, there were only two ways of getting around: by Shank’s pony or on horseback. If you were a knight and were on horseback (and right-handed) you would want to ensure that your sword hand was unencumbered to enable you to defend yourself against attackers.

Dismounting was also easier on the left, particularly if you had a sword in the way. This meant that horse riders naturally preferred to ride on the left hand side of the pathway, a practice that had been enshrined in legislation by 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII.

Things became a bit more complicated around the eighteenth century when wagons drawn by teams of horses were used to convey heavy loads. The driver didn’t have a seat but rode the left rear horse, leaving his right arm free to wield the whip. Because he was sitting on the left, the driver was happier if everyone passed him on the left. In other words, they adopted a preference for driving on the right-hand side.

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What gave a real impetus to the driving on the right movement was the French Revolution and subsequent events. The French aristocracy had traditionally ridden on the left, forcing the peasants to travel on the right. When the sans-culottes gained the ascendancy in 1789, they made driving on the right de rigueur. Napoleon’s rampages across Europe introduced the trend of driving on the right to many of our European friends.

Napoleon pictured explaining to his troops why their insistence on driving on the left will be the downfall of Wellington  (okay, really it’s Napoleon à Toulon, painted in 1793 by Edouard Detaille. Pic: Wiki Commons)

Naturally, in Britain we eschewed everything that smacked of foreign ways and steadfastly stuck to our guns, ploughing our furrows on the left. The practice was enshrined in legislation here in 1835, and – just as Boney had done – we introduced the custom of driving on the left to those parts of the world that had the good fortune to come under the yoke of enlightenment, otherwise known as the British Empire.

That is why some 35 per cent of the world’s population – including countries such as India, Australia, New Zealand, and some African countries – drive on the left to this day.

Showing the laissez-faire for which we are famed, some countries such as Egypt, which moved from French to British control, were allowed to retain their French customs.

The Japanese, who were never British subjects, still drive on the left. This is due to their Samurai heritage. They too needed to have their sword hand free. But it wasn’t until 1872 that this unwritten custom became official, a year that coincided with the Brits helping the Japanese build their railways. It became enshrined in law in 1924.

The Americans, of course, drive on the right. Initially, when it was a British colony, the inhabitants drove on the left, but following their rebellion in 1776, they forswore all practices they associated with their colonial masters. Of course, the influx of settlers from European countries who had been subjected to the dread influence of the French also helped.

The state of Pennsylvania was the first to pass legislation that required people to drive on the right (in 1792), followed by New York (1804), and New Jersey (1813).

The answer to our original question, then, is due to knights, Napoleon, and British perversity. So now we know!

Martin Fone is author of ‘Fifty Curious Questions’, from which this piece is an excerpt – find out more about his book or you can order a copy via Amazon.