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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.

Why do the English drive on the left side of the road while others drive on the right? The reasons for either practice are lost to history though there are several conjectures.

One theory about the origin of left-handed driving is that in pre-industrial days, travellers used swords for self-defence, including while 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.

Scholar Garrett Ryan says 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 enter the quarry empty and leave the quarry heavily loaded, making deeper grooves. But Ryan says it is not clear that foot or vehicle traffic in Roman times was always on the left in all places. Eric Poehler says that in some Roman Empire cities including Pompeii there is evidence that cart traffic went on the right.

Possibly the earliest law requiring left-hand traffic in England is a 1669 order, formalized later as "The London Bridge Act 1765," that all carriages leaving London use the east (left) side of the bridge.

The Highway Act of 1835 mandated left-side traffic for horses across England. Left-side driving became standard in England.

The keep-left rule spread far across India, Australasia, and much of Africa due to Britain’s imperial expansion, though some British colonies including in Africa changed to right-side drive after they became independent.

A common question that arises is why people drive on the right in almost all of continental Europe. Folklore has it that the reason is Napoleon, 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 a horse with his right hand, and hence he made everybody else travel on the same side as he travelled.

For whatever reason, many countries in Europe adopted right-hand travel. Some have switched from left-side to right-side driving in recent years.

Meanwhile, in the United States, right-side driving became established in many places. The theory there is that freight wagons pulled by teams of horses were guided by a person sitting on a left rear horse with his whip in the right hand, and the person could see the road better if he passed oncoming traffic on the right (though the video above argues that a teamster in such a position would prefer to pass on the left). However, even as late as 1850, not all roads in the US used right-hand travel.

Left vs. Right Driving

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.