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Why Do Americans and Brits (and Aussies) Drive on Different Sides of the Road?

Reader's Digest logo Reader's Digest 2/05/2017 Claire Gillespie

© shutterstock/llaszlo, shutterstock/GParker Have you ever wondered why Americans drive on a different side of the road than the British? It may seem bizarre to the Yanks that Aussie and UK drivers stay on the left, but we aren't the only ones. Around 35 percent of the world population does the same, including people in Ireland, Japan, and some Caribbean islands.

Originally, almost everybody travelled on the left side of the road, according to BBC America. However their mode of transport was quite different from today: Think four legs instead of four wheels. For Medieval swordsmen on horseback, it made sense to keep to the left to have their right arms closer to their opponents. (Presumably the 10 to 15 percent of left-handed knights just had to make it work.) Mounting and dismounting was also easier from the left side of the horse, and safer done by the side of the road than in the center

Blokes: While it is often attributed to the half-yank (his mom hailed from Brooklyn) that was Winston Churchill, it was actually Irish writer George Bernard Shaw who scribbled 'England and America are two countries divided by a common language.' But what both blokes do have in common is that, well, they're both blokes. Britain doesn't have 'bachelor parties,' but rather 'stag nights' and other terms they use for the men who populate those parties include, but aren't limited to: chap, Barney, GQ (stylish), geezer (not so much), lad, pet, fella and, believe it or not...lovey. It's also worth brushing up on these <a href=''>Spanish phrases everyone should know</a> before heading over to the continent (otherwise known as Europe). British Words and Phrases That Everyone in the World Should Know So perhaps the question here should be, why did people stop travelling on the left?

Things changed in the late 1700s when large wagons pulled by several pairs of horses were used to transport farm products in France and the United States. In the absence of a driver’s seat inside the wagon, the driver sat on the rear left horse, with his right arm free to use his whip to keep the horses moving. Since he was sitting on the left, he wanted other wagons to pass on his left, so he kept to the right side of the road.

The British Government refused to give up their left-hand driving ways, and in 1773 introduced the General Highways Act, which encouraged driving on the left. This was later made law thanks to The Highway Act of 1835. Meanwhile post-revolution France, under their left-handed ruler Napoleon, embraced a permanent move to the right side of the road. Amidst all this driving confusion, the British and the French were yielding their power across the globe, and as part of their rapid colonisation, they insisted that the countries they occupied drove on the same side of the road. This explains why former British colonies like Aussies, Kiwis, and Indians drive on the left, while former French colonies like Algeria, Ivory Coast, and Senegal drive on the right.

When Henry Ford unveiled his Model T in 1908, the driver’s seat was on the left, meaning that cars would have to drive on the right hand side of the road to allow front and back passengers to exit the car onto the curb. According to National Geographic, this influenced a change in many countries: Canada, Italy, and Spain changed to right-side driving in the 1920s and most of Eastern Europe followed suit in the 1930s. As recently as 1967 (and thanks to around $120 million from their government’s pocket) Swedish drivers began driving on the right. However British drivers remain on the left, and this is highly unlikely to change.


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