Why We Drive On The Right/Left Side – Mike Ruane

So, I was recently flying out to Seattle for business, and as we’re flying over this big, wide country, I figured that for a while we were going about ten times as fast as my MGB, and we were going in a fairly straight line. I don’t think that even if there were a straight line road from New Jersey to Seattle, could I do that drive in sixty hours, but it did get me thinking about roads.

For example, why do we drive on the right-hand side of the road, as opposed to the British and their former colonies, which drive on the left? I was able to do it just fine recently in Australia, but even there I wondered why. A little investigation yielded these answers.
Back in the days of old, you always walked on the left side of the road, because you didn’t know who might be coming down the path towards you, and you wanted to be sure you could use your fist, or get to your sword quickly. (presuming, of course, that you were right-handed.) In fact, this was made an ‘official’ behavior by Poe Boniface VIII in 1300, when he decreed that all pilgrims headed to Rome should keep to the left, and this spilled over to everyday people.

This was all well and good until the latter half of the 1700’s, when teamsters (guys driving teams of horses) were delivering large wagons of farm goods to market. These wagons had no seats, so the driver sat on the last horse on the left, so he could lash the horses with his right hand. Being on the left side of the wagon, you’d want other folks, and wagons, to pass you on the left, so you didn’t bang into them. So, you kept to the right side of the road. The first known keep-right law in the U.S. was enacted in Pennsylvania in 1792 (for a turnpike from Lancaster to Philadelphia), and in the ensuing years many states and Canadian provinces followed suit.

Similar issues happened in France – big wagons, common sense, and right handed people.  In fact Napoleon enforced it in all countries where his army was an occupying force.

The British had smaller wagons, with benches for the driver, but the driver sat on the right-hand side of the bench so that his whip wouldn’t get tangled in the wagon load. Finally, the drive on the right was enforced officially when an ordinance
regarding the London Bridge decreed that all traffic keep left, and it spread through the country, and empire. Pretty neat, huh?

So, flying over the country, seeing these roads, it made me want to get home and Drive! So, this weekend, you may see me in a brown MGB…

Mike Ruane  —  President, MGCC-CJC

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