HomeInternational#Why Do the British Drive on the Left? (A History Review)

#Why Do the British Drive on the Left? (A History Review)

The majority of today’s nations today drive on the right side of the road, following the rules of right-hand traffic, or RHT, including the United States, Canada, Russia and much of Europe. But around one third of the world’s countries buck the trend with left-hand traffic rules, or LHT. The United Kingdom is one of these nations. In fact, the UK has a long history of following LHT that dates way back into British history, perhaps even as far as the ancient Romans. But why do the British drive on the left, rather than following the widespread trend for the opposite? Read on to find out more.

Roman Custom

Emperor Otho on Horseback, from ‘The First Twelve Roman Caesars’, Anotonio Tempesta, 1596, Met Museum

One of the most widely circulated theories about why the British drive on the left dates back to ancient Roman times, even before cars and designated roads existed. Back then travelers riding on horseback faced the constant threat of invasion or mugging. Because the majority of Roman people were right-handed, riding horses on the left meant their right, dominant hand could be ready to draw out a sword in the event of an unexpected rival riding towards them. History suggests Roman soldiers kept up the tradition in larger groups by always marching to the left. The practice was passed on by subsequent civilizations through the ages.

In other nations, particularly Canada and the United States, meanwhile, goods were often transported on large wagons driven by multiple horses. Drivers would sit on the left, and whip their horse with their right hand. Riding on the right side of the road meant drivers could see oncoming traffic more easily, and avoid whipping anyone who crossed their path. The practice of driving on the right thereby became common practice.

It Was Written into British Law

Portrait of Pope Boniface VIII, who first recorded official British driving rules

The first officially sanctioned rule for driving on the left was enshrined by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300 CE, when he declared that all travelling pilgrims visiting the Roman Empire must remain on the left. In 1773, as British roads became more developed and congested, the government brought in the General Highways Act, which stated that all horse riders, farmers, coachmen and lawless highwaymen must remain on the left side to avoid any nasty collisions, even before cars had been invented. Just over a century later, the 1883 Highway Act wrote British driving rules into law, making it a crime for anyone caught driving on the wrong side, even though no one was riding around with swords on the roads by now.

British Cars Were Designed with Drivers on the Right

The interior of a classic British car showing the driver’s seat on the right side

One of the trickiest aspects of adopting different driving rules from one country to the next is adjusting to driving on the other side of the car. British cars were, and are, designed with the driver’s seat to the right, so that the driver riding on the left side of the road can see the traffic coming ahead in the opposite direction. This is often referred to as right-hand driving (not to be confused with right-hand traffic). By contrast, right-driving nations sit on the left side, thereby partaking in left-hand driving.

The Tradition Has Stuck Because Britain Is an Island

The United Kingdom as seen from the air

One of the reasons why British people still drive on the left is because they are an island nation, with no neighboring right-hand traffic countries. By contrast, various countries who are neighbors to right-hand traffic nations have adopted their rules to make travelling from one country to the next easier, there was no need for Britain to adopt any changes since it sits as an isolated island. Several of the other left-hand driving nations are also islands, including Japan and Malta.

The National Patriots


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