Why Do Drivers in the UK Drive on the Left?

Updated on September 4, 2017

Map of Roman Roads in the UK

Source

According to the world standards website only 35% of the worlds population drives on the left. However cars, horse drawn vehicles and pedestrians have travelled on the left hand side of the road for centuries in the UK. The reason behind this may reach as far back as Roman times. In 1988 in Swindon, England archaeologists found a preserved track leading to a Roman quarry. The grooves in the road on the left were much deeper than those on the right, suggesting that Roman vehicles travelled on the left because carts would exit the quarry with a heavy load and enter it much lighter. So why was this system in place?

Spiral Staircase

Source

Why on the Left?

Most historians agree that travelling on the left hand side of the road grew from necessity and convenience. As most people were right handed it was more practical to travel on the left so that your right hand was facing any oncoming traveler. This was essential for self defense. It made sense to have your right hand closer to an opponent when confronted. This is illustrated in the way spiral staircases were built in castles. These staircases were built so that those defending the castle at the top of the staircase had the advantage, the left of the step is thicker when walking down and your right hand is away from the wall, going up your right hand is against the wall, causing you to walk on a thinner part of the wall.

Historians have found evidence of traveling on the left in Ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome. Troops were trained to march on the left side of the road and solders kept left to be free to draw their swords with their right hand. Customs and laws were established in Ancient Rome concerning transport and travel, to ease traffic congestion in the city. Vehicles were banned at certain times of the day and pilgrims were instructed by Pope Boniface VIII to keep to the left side of the road when visiting/traveling in Rome.

Horses as Vehicles

Generally a right handed rider finds it easier to mount a horse from the left side. For safety it would be better to mount and dismount from the side of the road as a posed to the middle of the road so the horse would be ridden on the left side of the road.


When did Diving on the Left Become Law?

The General Highways Act of 1773 recommended that horse traffic should keep to the left of the road and this was included in the Highway Act 1835. By 1771 the number of coaches on the road rose dramatically and this impacted the need for driving on the left.

Right Hand Drive Car in the UK

Source

Driving Seat on the Right

Most British cars have the drivers seat on the right of the car but this was not always the case. When cars and motor vehicles were first introduced many had a central driving seat position, but soon manufactures began considering where the safest position might be. Some chose the side closest to the curb so that drivers could avoid collisions with objects along the curbside more accurately, others manufactured vehicles with the diving seat closest to the road to give drivers a good line of sight ahead. The later side proved more successful and resulted in cars in left side driving countries such as the UK, the driver sits on the right.

Driving in Other Parts of Europe.

Most counties in Europe that became part of the British Empire used the keep left rule, but over time many have converted to the right.

In the 19th century the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Poland and parts of Spain adopted the right hand traffic system to be aligned with France. In 1792 a decree in France had created a uniform traffic law requiring traffic to keep to the right and Napoleon ordered the military to stay on the right. In Denmark the system was adopted in 1793 and Belgium in 1899.

By law Portugal changed in 1928, Italy in the 1920s, Spain in the 1930s and Madrid in 1924. Other counties switched over to right had driving in stages, Austria being a good example of this starting with the west in 1919 and finishing with Lower Austria in 1938.

There are currently only four countries in Europe who drive on the left - United Kingdom, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus.


Changing Driving Side when Crossing Borders

Most counties that drive on the left are islands, however for the few that have boarders with right side driving laws the change over is achieved by using traffic lights, cross over bridges or one way systems. Some manufactures are experimenting with drive by wire and brake wire vehicles which allow the steering wheel and brake controls to slide from left to right.

If Britain Decided to Change to Right Side Driving

Pro
Con
Would increase conformity with other countries and make driving abroad easier
Cost of the change - road markings, motorway junctions, signs.
Vehicles with steering wheels on the left are often cheaper due to being mass produced.
Make driving more challenging for drivrs currently owning right hand drive cars. Their position in the road would change.
 
All drivers would need to make the change, so some may need to re learn.
 
Buses, coaches etc would be dropping off and picking up towards the middle of the road due to their door position.
 
Traffic lights with filters would need adapting,
 
One way streets might need reorganizing

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Ruthbro

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    • John MacNab profile image

      John MacNab 

      7 months ago from the banks of the St. Lawrence

      Excellent article Ruthbro.

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