Why the US Drives on the Right and the UK on the Left

by SharonKurheg

The first time I ever went to England, back in the 90s, I almost got run over by a car. It was my own fault, of course.

We had started in London, where a good many of the street corners have LOOK LEFT (or RIGHT, depending on the street) signs on the ground. But when we continued on to smaller towns, those helpful signs weren’t there. I think we were on a one-way street, and out of habit, I looked to the right. There weren’t any cars coming, so I started crossing…just as a car was getting ready to go past me on the left.

a close up of a logoSo yeah…if you travel enough, you know that although we drive on the right side of the road now (along with about 70% of the world’s countries), the UK, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Hong Kong, among others (about 30% of the world’s countries) do not (and before anyone says it in the comments, yep, a lot of countries that used to be part of the British Empire kept the “drive on the left” that was introduced to them).

Here are all the countries and their status in terms of what side of the road they currently (and, as applicable, used to) drive on:

a screenshot of a phoneBut why?

It’s one thing to know a fact. It’s another to learn the history behind the facts. There are actually a few theories as to why people in the UK drive to the left:

Knights & their swords

Most people today are right-handed. That tendency goes back thousands of years. So back during medieval times, most knights were right handed. Since they would have held their swords in their right hand during a duel, they’d carry them on the left side of their body. If someone with a sword met another person coming towards them on the road, it would make sense to be on the left side, since that’d allow them to offer their closer hand to greet the person they were passing, if they appeared to be friendly). If the person coming in the other direction were a threat, they’d be prepared to defend themselves.

Also, since knights wore their swords on their left side, they would naturally mount their horses from the left side so their swords wouldn’t get in their way. With that, it made sense to position the horse against the left curb so the knights could mount their horses from the curb, instead of the middle of the street.

Blame the French

The English and the French don’t always get along, so…

Apparently the French revolutionary government under Maximilien Robespierre dictated that everyone drive on the right. Napoleon and his armies marched through Europe and spread the word that everyone should drive on the right.

The British, long unfriendly with the French, purposely stayed on the left side, as a “2 fingered salute” (read: to give the French the English version of the middle finger).

Then why do we stay to the right in the U.S.?

Again, it depends on who you ask, although one theory appears to be more popular than the other.

Thumbing our noses at the English

Albert C. Rose, who served as “unofficial historian” of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads during much of his long career with the agency (1919-1950) researched why. He suggested that, “…no valid reason existed for transplanting the English left-hand rule especially since the nationals of other European countries had established in America widely separated settlements in which their own customs were observed.”

They wanted to do things their way.

Conestoga wagons

In the 1700s, Conestoga wagons were invented as a way for families to go “out west” and carry their belongings, as well as for peddlers and salesmen to have a place to hold their wares as they traveled and sold them and/or traded with Native Americans.

Whoever was driving the horses could ride one of the horses or sit on a “lazy board” that slid out of the side of the wagon.

But sometimes, the driver needed better control of the horses. In that case, they’d walk alongside the horses, giving them verbal commands (“Gee” and “Haw” were popular). Sometimes, the driver would also pull ropes and levels to keep the horses in better control. Since, once again, most drivers were right-handed, the controls would be on the left side of the wagon. That meant the driver was on the left side, and the wagon was on the right.

As more and more Conestoga wagons were on these roadways, the country’s first major highway was opened in 1795. Then known as the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road, the Pennsylvania highway had rules, one of which was that all traffic had to stay to the right.

Is Henry Ford to blame?

Some people say Henry Ford got people to drive on the right. The general consensus is that the theory’s probably not true. Yes, he did put the steering wheel on the left side of the Model T Ford automobile back in 1908, thereby making him the father of driving on the right side of the road. But most people think he did it because people were already driving their horse-drawn wagons on the right side of the road anyway.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary


Christian April 20, 2024 - 1:39 am

I’m driving in England for the first time next month and honestly I’m pretty nervous about driving on the left. Time will tell and it’s primarily country driving. We should make a pact with the Brits that we’ll change to the metric system in 10 years if they change to driving on the right in the same timeframe.

Tocsin April 21, 2024 - 1:23 pm

Top tip (from a Brit who drives abroad frequently): if renting a car, pay the extra for an automatic. Manual (stick shift?) cars are usually the default option. Gives you one less left/ right thing to think about!


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