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The reason why the British drive on the left is a relatively common history story that most people ever heard. The story began back to a time when people used to carry swords on their person. In fact, the majority of people are right-handed so traveling on the left helped them pose their sword arm facing any oncoming traveller, perfectly positioned to defend themselves. This apparently means less vulnerability to be attacked from people passing the opposite way.

However, Britain wasn’t the only one that had horses, swords and feudal, violent societies then. 

Some researchers have already declared evidence that the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans took the left hand side in traffic as a habit too. 

So what are the factors that changed the driving habits of several countries around the world except Britain and mostly old British colonies?

Things started to change after the Middle Age. After England became the first nation to pass an official rule which made driving on the left the law (in 1773), Napoleon decided to choose the opposite side for the French.

Some historians believe that Napoleon forcibly introduced driving on the right side simply because he was left-handed. Some assume that he chose the right because the French’s olde opponent at that time, the British, drove on the left. So Napoleon made it his policy to tell people that the left side was the wrong side of the road. Meanwhile, others believe that there was a more profound reason related to politics and the French Revolution in 1789. Before the Revolution, aristocrats drove their carriages on the left side of the road forcing everybody else over to the centre or to the right-hand side. However, with the onset of the Revolution, many aristocrats decided to keep to the ‘poor side’ of the road so as not to draw attention to themselves.

Besides, France and Britain were the two most powerful nations that conquered a number of colonies around the world then. Thus, the driving side somehow can be considered as the signal of their power. They exported their driving styles to all of their respective colonies, which is why many former British territories such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India still drive on the left. 

Afterwards the power of the right kept growing steadily, especially when Hitler imposed driving on the right hand side and applied it to Austria and Czechoslovakia in the 1930s.

And when Henry Ford created the first car of the world designed to be driven on the right by locating the drivers’ controls on the vehicle’s left side, the results of this persistent controversy was decided. With the mass production of reliable and economical cars in the United States, initial exports used the same design, and out of necessity many countries changed their rule of the road. Gradually, most countries choose to drive on the right as it stands today. 

So why does the British still keep driving on the road while all of its neighbors drive on the right?  

If they switch to the left, they can eliminate traffic confusion and dangerous situations when going abroad, or reduce additional engineering for steering wheels. However, there are also a number of obstacles that they have to face by making the switch such as costs of changing road markings and signs, rebuilding some motorway junctions, replacing buses, etc. Since the road network and the level of sophistication of the network and its controlling infrastructure has grown enormously, the UK’s Automobile Association calculated that the cost of simply changing Britain’s road signs from miles to kilometres would be £750 million.

Besides, there could be a safety problem: driving habits are well-entrenched and it might take some time to get used to the new arrangements. All buses would have to be rebuilt or else they would have to drop off passengers in the middle of the road.

Source: Historic UK 

BBC America

The National Motor Museum Trust

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