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Driving On the Wrong Side of the Road - Articles Surfing
On which side of the road do you drive? Depends if you're a Brit or an American.
If we go back far enough, some two thousand years ago, to the time when the Romans occupied Britain, we'll find a clue about driving habits back then. Archaeologists have unearthed a well-preserved track leading to a Roman quarry near Swindon, England. The ruts in the road on one side are much deeper than those on the other side, as would be the case if their carts were going IN empty and coming OUT with heavy materials such as stones. The ruts suggest that, at least in Swindon, the Romans drove on the left.
In fact, some believe that ancient travelers on horseback rode, for the most part, on the left side. Why? Because since most people are right-handed, horsemen would be able to hold their reins with their left hand and keep their right hand free - to offer in friendly greeting to a passing rider or to defend themselves with a sword if that need arose.
A Change to the Right
In the late 1700's, a shift from left to right occurred in the United States, when teamsters started using large cargo wagons pulled by several pairs of horses. Since these wagons had no driver's seat, the driver sat on the left rear horse holding his whip with his right hand. Seated on the left, the driver naturally preferred that other wagons pass him on the left so that he could be sure to keep clear of the wheels of any oncoming traffic. That was accomplished by driving on the right side.
The English, however, kept to the standard of left side driving. They had smaller wagons and the driver sat on the wagon, not on the horses as in the States, usually on the right side of the front seat. From there he could easily use his long whip in his right hand without entangling it in any cargo packed behind him. In that position, on the right side of the wagon, the driver could judge the safety margin of passing traffic by keeping to the left side.
Countries that became part of the British Empire adopted the keep-left rule too, although there were some exceptions such as Canada which eventually changed from left to right to accommodate easier facilitation of border crossings to and from the United States.
Political events in France had a large effect on citizens' driving habits. Before the Revolution of 1789, the aristocracy drove their carriages along the left side of the roads, forcing the peasants to move to the opposite side. But once the Revolution started, these nobles desperately tried to hide their identity by walking (or occasionally riding) on the right side like other peasants.
By 1794 the French government had introduced a keep-right rule in Paris, which later spread to other regions Napoleon I conquered throughout much of continental Europe. It's no wonder Napoleon favored keep-right driving, as he was left-handed and his armies had to march on the right so he could keep his sword arm between him and any who dared approach him aggressively.
In Europe, countries that resisted Napoleon kept to the left and eventually Russia and Portugal made the switch from left to the right early in the 20th century. Austria and Czechoslovakia changed also when occupied by Nazi Germany at the end of the 1930's, and Hungary followed suit. Today just four European countries still drive on the left side including Britain, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta. Japan also drives on the left, though never considered a British colony.
Copyright © 1995 - Photius Coutsoukis (All Rights Reserved).
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