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

Updated on September 19, 2017
livingsta profile image

Livingsta is a writer who writes about anything that fascinates, provokes or interests her by putting in her best of efforts and thoughts.

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 in order 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 the Britain’s imperial expansion, while many African countries changed to right after they became independent.

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.

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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 3 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Sheer unnecessary expense is why left side driving has been maintained, and it's not just us in the UK and Ireland. Why go to the bother of spending out on road signs, road warnings and all the rest that goes with it?

      We're cash-strapped as it is, and have been since after the Industrial Revolution with boom-and-bust, several major wars and economic depression in the 1920s-1930s, end of Empire after WWII... The money for conversion has to come from somewhere. So the status quo stays.

      It was easier for war-torn Europe to scrap things and start again after WWI (France, Belgium, northern Italy and again after WWII, then including the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Poland, the USSR, Greece and most of Italy). Britain, Australia and New Zealand had lend-lease to pay off to the US after WWII, and didn't clear that until the late 1960s/early 1970s.

      Now we've got an ailing health system and limping austerity and a big bill to pay for Brexit in 2019 (Germany, France and Austria want to punish us for leaving, can you believe that, after we rid them of the Nazis?)

      So there is is, plain home economics.

    • livingsta profile image
      Author

      livingsta 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you Kathryn :-)

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image

      Kathryn 4 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

      Oh, this one is an oldie! I just came over from your other one. Very fascinating.

      I hope you have a wonderful day!

      ~ Kathryn

    • livingsta profile image
      Author

      livingsta 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Maelene, thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I agree with what you say, it will for sure feel different. Have a great week ahead :-)

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 4 years ago from Northern California, USA

      Fascinating! I imagine it will always be that way. I know I would hesitate to drive in a country with left hand driving. It seems so unnatural to me, but I'm sure right hand driving seems just as unnatural to left hand driving, too.

    • livingsta profile image
      Author

      livingsta 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you for your thought provoking question Billd01603. Please have a look at the link below :)

      https://axleaddict.com/safety/Why-do-most-countrie...

    • billd01603 profile image

      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Then why do we in the US drive on the right?

    • livingsta profile image
      Author

      livingsta 8 years ago from United Kingdom

      I don't think there will be ever any change for this driving. Anyway let us hope..Thanks for commenting LADY E

    • Lady_E profile image

      Elena 8 years ago from London, UK

    • Lady_E profile image

      Elena 8 years ago from London, UK

      Interesting Hub. I wonder if we will continue to drive on the left or the government will change it. Having said that, maybe we should just stick to it, as their will be too much upheaval. Lol. Nice one. :)