Why does the UK & Eire drive on the left and Europe on the right?

A map showing the UK and Eire and all other European countries preference for which side they drive on.

Hi, this is Marcus. I am the cyclist who advised you on how to teach a 63-year-old to cycle. Today I thought I would tackle the subject of why the UK and Eire continually insist on riding and driving on the left while their neighbours across the English channel prefer to ride and drive on the right mainly.

The reason for this strange quirk can be found way back in history. So far back, that we are talking of the time of the knights and the crusades of 1096.

It was reasoned at the time that most people were right-handed. Nearly all would carry a sword to defend themselves and drew the weapon with their right hand. They found they preferred to walk on the left so as in the event of a confrontation, they could unsheath their mighty sword with ease.

With this action it also meant they would be closer to their opponent and the scabbard worn on their left side would be further away.

Another reason given is that for righthanded people wearing their scabbard and sword on their left side, meant they could only mount their trusting steed from the left.

They found it safer to mount and dismount their horse towards the side of the road; therefore, it became a natural progression for the horse to be ridden on the left side of any road.

Now let’s see why some turned to the right.

Now fast forward the next 700 years to the 1700s and the farming communities of the USA and France. Here the farmers used their large horses to pull the heavily laden wagons full of produce. The weight was so significant that often the wagon was drawn by a team of four or more powerful horses.

The wagons at this time were not fitted with a driver’s seat. So the drivers sat on the left to allow them to encourage the horses forward with a lash or two of the whip, which, yes, you guessed it, was resting in their right hand!

Now, because they were sitting on the left of the wagon, it made sense that they would drive on the right of the road allowing oncoming wagons to pass them safely on their left side.

Here, both wagon drivers would be able to negotiate safely past each other preventing the large wheels from touching each other as they did so.

So, why did other countries in Europe decide on the right?

Firstly let us look at Russia, it was noted under Tsar Peter the Great leadership, it was customary for all to travel on the right side of the road, so as not wishing to anger anyone, in particular, an edict was duly raised and signed by the Tsar, thus making it official.

Secondly, let’s return to France and its revolution of 1789. The rich and powerful known as the Aristocracy favoured riding on the left and that way they could force the majority of French people known as the Peasants to walk on the right.

As soon as things turned sour for the Aristocracy, they had no choice but to mingle on the right with the Peasantry when attempted to avoid the guillotine.

Eventually, like Russia and Denmark, the French decided in 1794 to make it law that everyone would ride on the right side of the road.

Thirdly, you can thank the French again for the spread of the new rightism via their famous little Emperor called Napoleon Bonaparte.

As he invaded his neighbours, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Switzerland, Poland, Germany and large parts of Italy and Spain, the custom of riding on the right became the norm.

I think you might agree with me; Napoleon was indeed a busy little chap in his time (He even found time to invade Egypt!)

You have to head to the next century to see the next significant change. Nearly all of Europe during the 1800s had adopted the right side of riding and driving and that frisky little island, known as Great Britain had resisted and stayed with the left.

They spread their lefthand faith to all the countries they colonised, and that is why you can see other places around the world such as Australia and India still today driving on the left.

The British even had a hand in helping Japan in deciding to be the same as the Brits. When the railway engineers arrived and built the first extensive railway network throughout Japan, of course, the trains and trams were designed to drive on the left.

Finally, in 1924, the powers that be in Japan finally relented and made it official that driving on the left was to be recognised and regulated by law.

Did you know that almost 65% of the world drive on the right and the other 35% can be credited to the British and their old colonies except for Japan (It never was colonised.)

As we all know history is so rewarding and fascinating. In this particular subject, I found it exciting to discover the reasons lost in time as to why we all either drive on the right or the left.

History shows us the French, and the British were often the roots of the decisions that remain with us throughout the world today.

I hope to write again soon. In the meantime check out all the other blogs and articles listed on mikebowley.com and head to further adventures on Mike’s work listed on Wattpad.com.

Bye for now,

Marcus.

 

 

Leave a Reply