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Why Do the English Drive on the Left Side of the Road?

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Motorway in the UK, showing left hand traffic.

Motorway in the UK, showing left hand traffic.

There is a logic that has evolved since olden days about keeping to the left on the road. In olden days people wanted to protect themselves using their sword while they were passing each other on the road. To accomplish this they had to be in the best possible position to use their sword to protect themselves. Since most people were right-handed, they felt it convenient to keep to the left and use the sword in their right hand. History states that keeping to the left came into force as early as 1300 AD when Pope Benefice told all his pilgrims to keep to the left. Archaeologists found in 1998 that a track leading to a Roman quarry near Swindon, England, had grooves on the road that were deeper on the left side. These suggest that Romans drove on the left since carts would leave the quarry heavily loaded and enter them empty, which explains the reason why the grooves on the left were deeper than the ones on the right.

Northcote Parkinson believed that in olden days, travellers on horseback rode on the left side of the road. Since most people were right-handed, the horsemen would hold the reins with their left hand and keep their right hand free to either offer in friendship to passing riders or to defend themselves with a sword from enemies if necessary. However in 1756, with regards to LondonBridge, the first legal reference was made to order the traffic to remain on the left. With passing days, as the horse traffic increased, the general Highways act of 1773 was passed which recommended that horse traffic should remain on the left. Later in 1835, this became a law as part of the Highways Bill. The keep-left rule also spread far across India, Australasia and much of Africa due to Britain’s imperial expansion, while many African countries changed to right after they became independent.

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Why Do the British Drive on the Left?

Left-hand driving for vehicles comes from old times, even before there were any cars. People preferred to be on the left-hand side while driving so that they had their right hand free to defend themselves against robbers either using a sword or gun. A common question that arises is why people drive on the right in other parts of Europe. It is believed that the reason behind this is Napoleon, who after conquering Europe, fixed the major roads and established traffic on the right side. Some believe that he did so to go against the way British travelled, while others believe that it was easier for him to control the horse with his right hand, and hence he made everybody else travel on the same side as he travelled.

Left vs. Right Driving

Another motorway, that shows left hand traffic.

Another motorway, that shows left hand traffic.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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