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Why Do the British Drive on the Left?

On the 3rd of September in 1967, at 4:50 am, all traffic in Sweden suddenly stopped for ten minutes. At 5:00 am, all cars changed their driving direction from the left to the right. This change marked the occasion when Sweden first decided to move towards the harmonization of road laws in Europe and became the last European country to change from the left to the right. This movement influenced a lot of European countries, but it did not influence the United Kingdom. This leads us to a curious question: Why do the British still drive on the left?

While it may seem like an arbitrary decision, the UK did not adopt left driving out of anywhere. There is a historical reason for this choice. In the Middle Ages, when people used to travel on horseback, they might face bandits, and most people are right-handed, so if a bandit passed by on the right of them, they needed to leave their right hand free to use the sword if required.

Due to this, the British are not the only ones who kept to the left, the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans also did. Archaeologists have discovered pieces of evidence, that shows that they traveled on the left side while marching their troops, as did individual horsemen.

Moreover, in 1300 AD, Pope Boniface VIII enacted a new law - ‘rule of the road’, and he stated that all pilgrims traveling to Rome should keep to the left. In the late 18th century, people started using large wagons to transport goods, and these wagons were drawn by several pairs of horses and had no driver’s seat. So, the driver had to sit at the back left of the horse to keep his whip hand free to control the horses. However, sitting on the left made it difficult to watch the traffic coming the other way.

Therefore, in the 18th century, due to traffic congestion, London enacted a law making all traffic on London Bridge drive on the left to reduce collisions. Then, this law was incorporated into the Highway Act of 1835 and was adopted throughout the British Empire.

As we can see, almost all of Europe began adopting left driving, so why the change?

The rise of the First French Empire at the beginning of the 19th century. At this time Napoleon Bonaparte began to establish French hegemony over much of continental Europe, and it just so happened that he was left-handed, in other words, he was attacking the enemy from the right side of the road, so enforced a rule in all French territories ordering traffic to keep to the right.

Napoleon was not the only leader who enacted such laws, Adolf Hitler also forced Austria and the Czech Republic to drive to the right, in addition to that, he used the advantage that most cars at that time were produced in Germany, so he controlled other countries driving by changing the driver seats in these cars from left to right.

Thus, not only was this law enforced in the British Empire but also in all colonies related to them, like Australia and New Zealand. However, other countries like the United States of America and Canada decided to change their driving direction from the left to the right for an entirely different reason. They used huge wagons (that didn’t work for the UK) but worked for USA and Canada due to the open spaces and large distances there. So, they adopted the ‘keep-to-right’ law that was enacted first in Pennsylvania in 1792.

So, after all this, the question must be: Why is the rest of the World driving on the Right?

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