While there are several notable similarities between differing cultures and countries, there are also many differences as well. For example, in many parts of the world, they drive on the left side of the road. Meanwhile, other countries drive on the right. Although this information has left many wondering why, it turns out there are a few reasons for the difference in preference.
To better understand why the U.S. and the U.K. drive on opposite sides of the road, it’s important to note the history of travel. According to the BBC, nearly everyone in the world once traveled on the left side of the road. The reason for this had to do with safety and efficiency, as well as a different method of transportation.
Transformation of Travel
Prior to motor vehicles, one of the most common methods of transportation was by horseback. During Medieval times, riders were on the left side of the road because it was safer to mount and dismount their horses from the outside of the road. Moreover, swordsmen, primarily right-handed, had an easier time defeating their opponent because it allowed their dominant hand to be free for combat.
In the late 1700s, riding horseback shifted to horse and carriage. This allowed larger wagons to transport farm goods throughout the U.S. and France. This more advanced form of transport allowed the rider, or driver, to sit on the rear left side. As a result, it was safer for the driver to be on the right side of the road, passed on the left by other wagons.
Although places like France and the U.S. had adopted a new way of driving, with a different side of the road, the British Government was set on maintaining a left-handed driving technique. Set in their ways, the U.K. introduced the General Highways Act, “encouraging” drivers to stay to the left. By 1835, the act became law.
Doing Things Differently
In contrast to the U.K., France had their own ideas about driving. Napoleon was ruler at the time and happened to be left-handed. This prompted France to adopt driving on the right side of the road permanently. While innovation and technology emerged and transformed the driving experience, something much larger was happening globally. While France and Britain were on a mission to colonize parts of the world, they insisted that the territories they occupied also adopt their preferred method of driving.
As a result, former British colonies like Australia and India; and French colonies like Algeria and Senegal still drive on the side of the road that was enforced by their government.
Breaking free from British rule, likely inspired the U.S. to make several changes. Therefore, driving on the right side of the road became the norm in Colonial America. Solidified by Henry Ford when he released his 1908 Model T, placing the driver’s seat on the left side of the vehicle. As established above, allowing passengers to safely enter or exit the vehicle from the curb, rather than the side closest to the road.
The U.S. and France seemingly set a precedent for other countries as places like Spain, Canada, and Italy began right-side driving in the 1920’s. The majority of Eastern Europe also made the switch in the 1930’s. More recently, in 1967, Sweden made the switch as well. However, the change cost their government nearly $120 million.
It’s unclear how big a role the cost of changing plays in Britain’s decision to continue driving on the left. However, the government seemingly has no plans to change sides. Interestingly, Britain and its colonies aren’t the only places in the world that people drive on the left, in fact around 35% of the world’s population, including Japan and Ireland, drive on the same road as they do in the U.K.