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This is why North Americans drive on the right and Brits drive on the left


I went to the Amish countryside of Pennsylvania to see a man about a wagon. I was looking to find the answer to a question I had been asking myself since 2015, when I was traveling to England on a work trip.

Back when I was driving very carefully through London in a Mini Cooper, I asked myself: why was I driving on the “wrong” side of the road? I’m from the United States, which started out as a group of former British colonies. We speak more or less the same language. But we are moving in opposite directions, sometimes with dangerous consequences.

And the United Kingdom is of course not the only country to do otherwise. It turns out that about 30 percent of countries in the world mandate left-hand driving and about 70 percent stick to the right. How it got there is a twisty story.

In Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte played a central role. In the United States, Henry Ford is often given the credit, but this is actually a mistake. It goes back much further than Ford. Not only does right-hand traffic predate cars, it also predates the founding of the United States.

That’s how I found myself in an old tobacco barn in Conestoga, Penn., looking at a cart – just a few days later I tested a Tesla Cybertruck, its modern electric descendant. John Stehman, whose family has farmed in the area since 1743, met me. He is president of the Conestoga Area Historical Society, and as I have learned through my research into the history of roads and motoring, the Conestoga Trolley played a key role in all of that history.

Wagon trains

These large wagons, with their high arched canvas roofs, became icons of America’s westward expansion as they carried the goods of eastern pioneers to the frontier. By the early 1700s, however, western Pennsylvania was the far frontier.

Conestoga wagons were developed by local carpenters and blacksmiths to transport goods, including agricultural products and items bartered from Native Americans, to markets in Philadelphia. Philadelphia was, at the time, one of the largest cities in the colonies. The wagon driver could ride on one of the horses or sit on a “lazy board” that slid out of the side of the wagon. But when more active control was needed, he walked alongside the horses, pulling the levers and ropes.

“He would give the verbal command, ‘Gee,’ ‘Haul,’ or whatever, and they would hear it,” Stehman said. “He might also pull on that leather ‘shake line’ once or twice.”

I imagined myself walking down a long, dusty path at the head of a team of horses pulling this blue-painted wagon. I’m right-handed, like most people. It was for this very reason that Conestoga wagons had the controls on the left side, near the wagon driver’s right hand. This meant that the driver was in the middle of the road and the cart was on the right.

Eventually, there was so much commerce and traffic between Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia that America’s first major highway was created. The Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road opened in 1795. Among the rules written into its charter, according to the book “Ways of the World” by MG Lay, was that all traffic had to keep to the right – just like the wagons did Conestoga.

In 1804, New York became the first state to mandate that traffic stay on the right on all roads and highways.

Some credit Henry Ford with normalizing American traffic on the right side of the road because, in 1908, Ford Motor Co. placed the steering wheel on the left side of the wildly popular Model T. In reality, Ford was only reacting to largely long-established driving habits.

What’s really strange is that most of the rest of Europe, except Britain, drives on the right like Americans do.

Napoleon’s march across Europe

Why are the British exceptions, even on their own continent? Credit or blame the French.

The French revolutionary government under Maximilien Robespierre – best known for leading the late 18th century The “reign of terror,” during which thousands were guillotined, dictated that everyone drive on the right.

The left side of the road was, by long cultural convention, reserved for carriages and horses. In other words, the richest classes. Pedestrians, that is to say the poorest people, stood on the right. Forcing everyone to the same side of the road, in addition to being good for traffic, was part of eliminating these snobbish class distinctions.

The upper classes probably followed because, at that time, being considered aristocratic was not only unfashionable, but rather dangerous. (See above about guillotines.)

French policy was said to have been disseminated by Napoleon as his armies marched across Europe. Evidence of this can be found by examining a map of the Napoleonic Empire from 1812.

There exists a nation which was neither subject nor ally of Napoleon. That would be Sweden. Sweden drove on the left, until one surprisingly calm day in 1967, drivers turned to the right.

Great Britain literally took the opposite path from France.

According to historian Lay, this was due to the different types of transportation used. There were fewer industrial-sized wagons in Britain, and more small carriages and individual riders. Riders preferred to stay left to keep their right hand toward oncoming traffic to greet and, if necessary, fight.

Dangerous driving

Whatever the reasons, there are sometimes real consequences to changing sides and there have been serious accidents.

William Van Tassel, AAA’s driver training manager, recommends drivers take extra steps to concentrate when driving on the other side. For one thing, turn off the radio.

“I think it’s good to talk to each other while you’re driving there. It forces you to concentrate on driving,” he said. “OK, tight to the left or all the way to the right. Check for traffic coming from the right rather than the left. Either way, whatever works.

At Avis Budget Group, which rents many cars to Americans driving in the United Kingdom, rental agents are careful to remind customers to drive on the left. They are also taking other measures.

“In addition, all our vehicles across the UK carry ‘Drive on the left’ stickers and in major locations we distribute Drive on the left wristbands, which we advise our customers to always wear on the left wrist to remember which side. of the road to drive,” Avis Budget said in a statement.

AAA’s Van Tassel also recommends having a passenger as another pair of eyes, which helped me when I was driving there, even though I sometimes terrified her.


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