The Historic Reason Why Some Countries Drive On The Left
A British taxi drives on the left side of the road. Sources: (Photo by ISABEL INFANTES / AFP) (Photo credit should read ISABEL INFANTES/AFP/Getty Images)
If you have ever been to England, Australian, the Bahamas, or Japan, you may have found driving to be a bit of a challenge. That’s because these countries, as well as a few more, drive on the left side of the road, even though the bulk of the world—about 75%—drive on the right side. The reason why some places prefer the left side of the road goes back hundreds of years, long before cars were even invented. So what is the historical reason why some countries drive on the left side of the road while others drive on the right?
Left is Best…Just ask a Knight
Knights traveling from castle to castle in medieval Europe preferred to ride their horses on the left side of the road because it offered the best protection. How so? The majority of people back then, like today, are right-handed. Traveling on the left side of the road meant that a knight’s right hand was nearest travelers in the oncoming lane. If that traveler proved to be a foe, the knight could more easily engage him in battle with his sword in his right hand instead of having to whip his horse around to fight from a better angle.
The Knights had a Few Good Reasons for Picking the Left
In addition to giving them an edge in an attack, the medieval knights preferred the left side of the road for other key reasons. A knight was never without his faithful sword, housed in a sheath or scabbard strapped to his left hip. This positioning made it easier for the knight to draw out his sword with his right hand. With the sword on their left side, the knight had to mount his horse from the left. It was safer for the knight and less annoying for his fellow travelers for the knight to stand on the side or the road, not the middle, to mount his horse.
The Sheath as a Road Hazard
A knight’s sword, including the scabbard, could be several feet long. They hung at an odd angle at the knight’s side. Were the knight to ride on the right side of the road with his sword on his left side, he ran the risk of knocking into people or horses with his sword.
The Move to the Right
The shift to the right started in the late 1700s. At that time, in the United States and France, farmers and merchants hired teamsters to haul goods to the bigger cities. The produce was carried in large, wooden wagons pulled by a team of horses. The wagons were not equipped with a driver’s seat. The teamster rode on the back of the rear horse on the left side. This allowed him to keep his right hand free to lash the horses. The driver would instruct others to pass him on the left side so he could see that his wagon wheels were far enough away from the other wagon’s wheels. Very quickly, teamsters realized that they needed to drive on the right side of the road.
Aristocrats to the Left. Peasants to the Right
In the early 1700s, the side of the road one traveled on was often influenced by their position in society. The wealthy, elite, aristocratic class traveled on the left, primarily because it was easier for the knights and soldiers to protect them from this side of the road. The peasants, on the other hand, traveled on the right side of the road. In fact, they had to yield and get out of the way of the aristocrats, so they just stayed to the right. After events of political unrest, like the French Revolution, the wealthy elite, not wanting to call attention to themselves, would stick to the peasant side of the road.
A Split for the New World
After the United States gained its independence from England, the Founding Fathers were eager to make their own rules, and no longer follow the precedents set by England. The influx of French immigrants helped the cause since France had already made the switch to the right. Canada, as a British territory, held on the left side of the road. Most of Canada made the move to the right after World War I, but some of the English-settled areas, like Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island, clung to the English way much longer. Newfoundland was the last hold-out. They didn’t start driving on the right until 1949. Other former British territories in the New World still follow the English custom of driving on the left. They include the Bahamas, Antigua, and Barbados.
The Left Side is Law in Japan
Japan, never under British rule, developed the habit of driving on the left side of the road back in the 1600s. It was customary, but not law, until 1872, when the first trains were built in Japan. The network of trains spurred construction of more modern roads. The law was officially passed in the early 1900s.
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