(Note : In this article RHT : Right-hand Traffic. LHT : Left-Hand Traffic.)
May 2012, as I was going from France to England by coach
As we finally cross the Channel and enters the English motorway, a passenger right behind me cannot help to express his amazement « THEY DRIVE ON THE LEFT!!! OH MY GOD! THIS IS CRAZY!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT I’M SEEING RIGHT NOW!! THEY DRIVE ON THE LEFT!! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?!!» He looked at me as he asked this last question, as if he was the first human being to ever come across that discovery. This bewildered passenger was a French-speaking middle-aged man who had obviously never set foot on the British soil. The other passengers and I shared a tenderly amused smile, pleasantly surprised by the man’s genuine and child-like response. I think many of us must have also been reminded of how it has felt for us the first time we went to Britain and discovered that mind-blowing difference. To me, it used to feel like visiting a parallel universe where the basic rules of left and right were entirely opposed to ours. After all, those notions shape our spatial and mental experience in a very profound way and cannot just be overlooked as a mere cultural choices. But I couldn’t help wondering why the Brits decided to drive “on the wrong side of the road”, many just shrugged and told me «well, they’re British, aren’t they? » and although not intellectually satisfied with their own answers they couldn’t come up with a better one.
And the truth is : I was wrong all along, the question wasn’t « why do they drive left? » but « why did most countries have to historically give up Left-Hand Traffic? »
Nowadays 70% of the countries are RHT and the remaining 30% mostly include former British colonies (yeah Australia, we’re looking at you)
Horsemen and right-handedness
Once upon a time, most countries drove on the left, or to be more accurate « rode » on the left. For this tale starts way before the invention of cars and stems from two very trivial factors : most people are right-handed and most people do not really enjoy getting killed without at least putting up a fight.
Let’s go back to a time where riding a horse was the fastest transportation means available : you are riding a horse, your right-hand is gonna be needed to wield your weapon in case of attack. Imagine that you ride left: that would make it much easier to draw your sword and attack from the right.
Left-hand riding was thus standard and was barely questioned, let alone enforced since it was “natural”.
The French shift to the right
There is a great deal of urban legends surrounding this issue of right versus left hand driving : one of them tells the story of Pope Boniface VIII who advises pilgrims to keep left . The urban legend then asserts that ze Frenchies, animated by anti-clerical sentiments during the Revolution, decided to do THE EXACT OPPOSITE just for the hell of it. I can’t deny that historically speaking, that could make sense…after all, the French Revolution was a moment of great turmoil and breaking from the past was a huge thing back then. Too bad this papal decision has never been supported by any document…not even this one :
Some theories even go as far as suggesting that Christian countries favoured RHT because the right is seen as spiritually purer. It is an anthropological fact that most civilisation do seem to regard the right as holy. However, in this case, there are no facts to back up this very weird idea. Seems like the Church was too busy doing whatever the Church does to actually care about the rule of the road (in a time when cars didn’t even exist anyway!)
What we know is that France (and some parts of the US) gradually became a RHT country, arguably due to the invention of teamsters with no rider seat. The driver sat on the left rear horse to keep control of the team and that naturally lead to keep right :
Most of you probably don’t feel a paralysing shiver down your spine whenever the word «French» is uttered. However, there was a time where far from being the object of cheese-eating-surrender monkeys jokes, the French were seen as a ruthless, very advanced military power, shaking and reshaping Europe. What does it have to do with anything? Actually a lot!
The standardisation of the right-hand driving in XIXth century Europe is due to this Napoleon guy. Napoleon Ier, self-appointed Emperor of France entertained a lot of different hobbies which included writing a new Code of Justice for France, looking fabulous on a horse and taking over the world. He didn’t go that far but he still managed to conquer a great part of Western Europe in less than a decade (1803-1814) The conquered territories were turned into what we could call colonies (for lack of a better word) and had to adopt French customs such as riding on the right.
It is important to highlight the fact that Napoleon’s left-handedness had probably little or nothing to do with this unlike what many sources suggest. He was not THAT megalomaniac.
Basically, by the end of Napoleon’s reign, the map of Europe was divided between those who resisted Napoleon (typically Britain) and those who didn’t :
Colonies : Britain versus France
As one can expect, the overseas colonies from the British and French Empire followed the rule of the road imposed by their rulers. The British colonies in the U.S. were no exception. Why do they drive right today then? Well, after the Independence, the former British colonies decided to go through a typical case of teenage crisis and did as much as they could to forget their British heritage. It probably included pretending that Saint Georges’ day didn’t exist and gradually driving right.
The mass production of the first widely affordable car, the Ford T, brought about the legal steps that made it official in the U.S. to keep-right at the beginning of the XXth century.
1919 : 50/50. Harmonisation with neighbours?
By the end of WWI, there were 104 territories on the LHT camp and 104 territories on the RHT camp. Tie! But as we know, nowadays most countries follow a RHT.
Why did some territories decide to change to a keep-right system?
For the same reason that most humans do pretty much anything unpleasant : peer pressure! Or in this case, being surrounded by countries who had a keep-right rule of the road strongly encouraged the isolated keep-left countries to change.
Such was the case for Sweden. The brave people of Sweden were asked to vote in a plebiscite about swapping sides (from LHT to RHT). The vast majority of people (82,5% of those who cared enough to vote) voted “No”, to which the government answered by not giving a single fuck and implementing the change anyway. (Because..DEMOCRACY!!!). It was a very gradual and slow process since it has taken a whole decade to prepare the population but it also happened to be brutal because swapping sides isn’t really the kind of matters where you can find a golden medium and it happened on September 3rd, 1967.
If harmonisation with neighbours truly is the main factor, then it is easy to understand why insular Great Britain didn’t feel such a strong incentive to shift. But living on an island is not a fool-proof way of keeping left as the case of Iceland suggest. Because Iceland, unlike quirky, marmite-loving Britain, feels a strong sense of belonging to Scandinavia and followed its big sister Sweden in the process.
Actually, the keep-left tradition is a source of pride and national identity to the Brits. Many feared that their joining the European Union would question what is considered as a symbol. However, this is very unlikely to happen. The only thing that the European Union really changed for the UK regarding this Keep-Left matter, is that they are now allowed to buy LHD cars (so the wrong kinda car to them) from car dealers in other European countries. If you’re wondering why anybody would want to do that, it’s probably mainly for those who often go abroad where they keep right (pretty much anywhere then!). Some may do it because it is cheaper but as it turns out, it may be more difficult to find a insure. It can also look more prestigious if it’s a German car because it looks more authentic. More practicaly, it also simplifies the importation of LHD cars that are not turned into RHD, like for example classic continental cars.
CONCLUSION : all in all, this car-related topic has close to nothing to do with cars and everything to do with influence and identity.
COOL FACTS :
Japan (LHT) is a very particular case that didn’t really fit the general history. I think we can safely assume that everybody expects the Japanese to be at least as quirky as the Brits so let’s leave it at that.
In France, trains operate on the left because they were originally constructed by English engineers and made with equipments from England.
The general rule of the road seems to apply to pedestrians : as anybody who, like me ended up bumping into Londoners when walking through the Tube corridors, the general unwritten and unspoken rule is to keep left in LHT countries and right on RHT countries. – but one can figure it easily after 5 collisions with innocent Londoners. It is pretty amusing to find out that it really is natural for Parisians to keep right when walking along a public transportation corridor and for Londoners to keep left. Soft-wired? Probably. Confusing? Tell me about it!
Left-hand riding used to be the standard, then those wacky French started to use transportation means that were more comfortable to drive on the right side. Then the Frenchiest of all Frenchmen Napoleon decided to conquer Europe and imposed this right-hand traffic thingy to his poor victims. The good-old Brits conquered the world and did the exact same thing to their colonies. After WWI, it’s a tie between RHT and LHT but finally, RHT ends up prevailing because of some LHT countries felt a bit awkward and isolated and decided to go with their neighbouring countries choices. And this is why most of the world now drives on the right.
- SHY.O. The Economics of Network Industries
- Poland being a bad guy : http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/newsroom/cf/itemdetail.cfm?item_id=5446&lang=en
- SUP LEE. E.World Trade Regulation: International Trade Under the WTO Mechanism