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Bucking The Trend: Why Do We Drive On The Left In The UK?

If you’ve ever looked at a map showing countries that drive on the left, you’ll quickly notice just how outnumbered they are. So why is it that we drive on the left in the UK? Here’s the rundown…

Historic Trends

First of all, there’s no ‘definitive’ answer as to why some countries drive on the left and why some drive on the right. In both cases, there are a number of historical factors. What we need to remember is that, whilst cars are a relatively modern invention, traffic isn’t a new phenomenon. Whether it’s marching soldiers in Antiquity or horses and carriages, there have always been roads and there have always been people using them.

We know that ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman soldiers marched on the left whilst on campaigns. There’s also evidence that, at a former Roman quarry in what is now Swindon, carts were keeping to the left. Grooves on the left hand side of the remains of a road were lighter than those on the right; suggesting empty carts were entering on the left and leaving with full loads on the right. It’s difficult to infer why this is the case, but some historians have postulated that it probably came from the fact that most people (as they are now) are right-handed. If they found themselves in a conflict, they’d use their right arm to defend themselves.

Veering To The Right

Conversely, in the likes of the USA and France (where drivers stick to the right) historic traffic had reason to use the right-hand side of the road. Large freight wagons in these countries often had no drivers’ seats; meaning that they’d be operated by men using their right hands whilst sat on a left-rear horse. Because they were sat on the left, they preferred on-comers to pass on the left to ensure wheels on carriages didn’t collide.

Slowly but surely, these trends began to find themselves being enshrined in legislation and law; meaning that traffic composed of feet and horses eventually laid down the rules and regulations for motorists. However, political and economic organisations have also played their part. At the 1920 Paris Convention, advice was for drivers to stick the right so that traffic would be coordinated across the continent; this was seen as being important given the sheer amount of borders that were then present between neighbouring states. As the first heavily industrialised states were in Europe, they also had the most traffic. The tendency to drive on the right spread to the Americas and became the dominant trend. Countries associated with the UK, however, such as former colonies in Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and Ireland, followed its example by using the left side of the road.

Swapping Over

But do countries ever change which side they use? Yes, but it’s rare. Drivers in Sweden drove on the left between 1734 and 1967. The government decided that it was necessary given that most Swedes drove cars designed to be driven on the right and because all of the country’s neighbours used the right-hand side of the road anyway.

On September 3rd, 1967, all traffic was banned between the hours of 01:00 and 06:00 except for emergency vehicles. This was to allow for the swapping of signage and instructions. Despite concerns, the change went rather smoothly. Accidents were actually below average, even dipping in places, and no fatalities were recorded; although this may have been because of the cars the Swedes were already driving. The UK’s Department for Transport once considered the feasibility of the change in the late 1960s, but it was decided that given the extent of the nation’s transport infrastructure it’d be too dangerous and costly to implement.

An Island Habit?

Notably all of the four nations in Europe that drive on the left are island nations; meaning that they don’t share borders; except for the UK and the Republic of Ireland, both of which drive on the left anyway. This means they’ve never needed to synchronise with neighbouring countries in the same way their continental equivalents have had to. Either way, the historic origins of driving on the left probably lie with the need to defend oneself with one’s right hand, especially in an age before rule of law and organised policing.

Where countries drive on the right, it’s usually because of the demands of modern vehicles themselves (which acted as a catalyst); and the need for countries sharing multiple borders to harmonise their legislation. Either way, it’s unlikely to ever change in the UK. Which means visitors and tourists will just have to get used to making a switch; as we’ll have to when crossing the Channel.

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