Driving on the left
IN VIOLENT feudal societies travelling on the left was a far better idea for the simple fact that riders on horseback carried swords on their left-hand side. For polite travellers this meant that by passing on the right their sword would not interfere with oncoming traffic. For early road ragers it meant that they could quickly take up their sword with their right hand, enabling them to strike out at would-be overtakers, regulate people pulling out in front of them, or merrily slash away at anyone coming in the opposite direction.
The switch to driving on the right seems to have been largely the fault of the French and the Americans, who began hauling luggage around using carts with horses in the 1700s. As your right-handed traveller needed to lash the beasts repeatedly to get to work on time it was necessary to sit on the left horse so that both were easily accessible with the whip. It then made more sense for the driver to locate himself nearer the middle of the road and so carts began to pass each other on the left.
With uncanny resemblance to his own political career, Napoleon ensured that the drift from left to right continued apace. Not only did he decree that everybody in France should travel on the right, he then proceeded to conquer most of Europe to encourage his continental neighbours to follow suit. Over a hundred years later, Hitler attempted to fill in the gaps that Napoleon had missed. When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, he introduced driving on the right overnight. He seemed indifferent, or perhaps unaware, that most of the road signs were inevitably facing the wrong direction, and equally unconcerned that Austria’s trams continued to drive on the left for several weeks because they could not immediately be transferred.
It was the force of global industry that cemented the worldwide tendency for driving on the right. Henry Ford’s Model-T motor vehicle was the first in a long production line of cars designed with the steering wheel on the left. Exported all over the world, these vehicles made driving on the right the most sensible option for the 20th century nation.
Unless of course you were Britain, or a British colony. In a characteristic effort to stave off the rest of the world and global homogenisation, Britain boldly maintained its tradition of driving on the left. Napoleon had failed to conquer her. The growth of American industry would not influence her. Even the extreme ‘rightist’ policies of Hitler were defeated. During the invasion of Normandy in 1944, British military vehicles still drove on the left for a time causing numerous collisions with their American allies who were driving on the right. And so by the time Britain thought about switching over in the 1960s driving on the right was thoroughly un-British. Driving on the left appears to be here to stay.ARCHIVE: 0th week TT 2005