Why Do We Drive On The Left In The UK?

Good question – and it’s one of those dinner party conundrums where everyone scratches their head and thinks ‘hmm… why do we Brits drive on the left when 65% of the world drive on the right?’ Is it because we like to be contrary or is there a proper reason why we buck the trend? We thought we’d get to the bottom of this frequently thought question and find out – here goes.

So, why do we drive on the left in Britain?

We can thank history for left hand driving, as it potentially harks all the way back to the Romans who (the historical grapevine has it) marched on the left. Many other countries also started out travelling on the left but through time this has gradually changed.

The majority of people (around 85%) are right handed and in the olden days when people carried swords, being on the left meant that travellers could easily access their trusty blade should they need to draw it. This is really how travelling on the left-hand side started out in Britain and in 1773 the government introduced the General Highways Act which set out that if you took to the streets in a cart, coach or on horseback, then you had to keep to the left.

Have other countries always driven on the right?

Not always – which side of the road a country favours, is really down to the history of each one. But it’s true that we’re in a minority where driving on the left is the norm – only about 35% of the world keep to the left.

For example, travellers in Russia traditionally stayed on the right-hand side (maybe they didn’t have swords like we did), this preference was made official in the early 1700s and that’s how it’s stayed.

why do we drive on the left in the UK

Why did driving on the right become the norm in some countries?

It was a combination of technical advances, revolution and plain old practicalities that saw many countries switch to right hand driving, such as the increased use of freight wagons and the rise of Napoleon.

Freight wagons pulled by several horses, were popular in France and America, but instead of having a central driving seat like a horse drawn coach, wagon drivers would sit on the horse at the very back, on the left-hand side. Being in this position meant that he (because women didn’t usually do that kind of stuff in those days) could control all his horses with his dominant hand – typically, his right.

But sitting on the horse on the left-hand side whilst driving on the left meant that riders couldn’t see if oncoming traffic would get tangled in their wagon wheels (remember them?) So, the practical to solution to this…was to drive on the right.

What’s the French Revolution got to do with right hand side driving?

Travelling on the right in France was traditionally what peasants did, while the aristocracy kept to the left. After the French Revolution, when lots of the ancien régime lost their heads, those that kept theirs understandably didn’t want to draw attention to themselves and joined in the masses and travelled on the right.

When Napoleon came into power, he reinforced this right hand travelling as he swept his way through Europe – rumour has it, he was also left handed so it suited him to keep to the right in order to grab his sword at a moment’s notice.

Why do some colonies keep to left hand driving and some don’t? 

Back in the day, Britain instilled the rule of driving on the left on her many colonies. But as those colonies became independent nations, they threw off the shackles of colonisation and asserted their own laws of the land – and ditched the left-hand side driving rule. Although some still drive on the left such as Australia and India. 

traffic on the motorway

There are only four countries in the whole of Europe that drive on the left: the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta – everyone else drives on the right.

Have any countries changed which side of the road they drive on, recently?

Samoa switched from driving on the right to driving on the left as recently as 2009 so that the country was in line with other South Pacific countries. It was also hoped that Samoa would be able to bring in cheaper cars rather than rely on expensive US imports.

In Europe, Sweden was the last country to switch sides and it literally happened overnight. On the 3 September 1967, all traffic stopped whilst signs were moved around to accommodate the change and traffic then resumed, but on the right-hand side instead.

Is it likely that we might change which side we drive on in Britain?

Not really – if it ain’t broke why fix it? And moving everything around would cost too much to ever make it a consideration. Besides – it’s good to be different and one of the things that makes going abroad so much fun.

But whether you’re sticking to the roads at home or taking the car further afield – make sure you’re properly covered, because discovering that you’re not, is about as much fun as marching the wrong way up a Roman army – mind those swords.

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