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Who’s Right? (And Who’s Left?)

edited January 2013 in The Show
Did you catch the show this weekend? Caller Julie from Cambridge, Our Fair City, MA., posed an interesting question. She wondered why we here in the U.S. we drive on the right-hand side of the road, when all other former British colonies seem to drive on the left. If you missed it, you can listen right here.

She put the question to Tom and Ray and it unleashed a frenzy of wild speculation. Tom thought it was an anti-British gesture--something that the rebels in America adopted just to differentiate ourselves from the high-falutin’ royalty across the pond.

Ray claims that left-hand travel used to be customary in England... and that it goes all the way back to right-handed knights, who wanted easy access to their swords. In case, for example, they needed to make an emergency beheading.

Ray further claims that the United Kingdom is now considering making a big switch. (We invite Her Majesty’s subjects to set the record straight on that suspect claim!)

What do you think?

Why do we drive on the right in some places... and on the left in others?

Is there any truth to these theories, or have Tom and Ray plumbed new depths of Booooogosity? And how did the switch impact Tom’s work commute back in 1776, anyway?

Share your thoughts, below!

Yours in solving one of the greatest driving mysteries of all time,
The Car Talk Lackeys


  • edited January 2013
    just heard this story and did some digging
    and this is the reason why the Brits and some other countries rive on the "wrong side"
    what was said in response was pretty close,
    but the pope said do it that way. So, when the English became protestant why didn't it change in protest
    and French nobility are some (rude words here)

    The US drives on the right because Ford was the first to mass produce cars in the US. Henry Ford's design had them on the left and since Ford controlled the market, the law was written to the design and not the other way around as it is now.
  • it's not a mystery anyone can look it up now on line but the story is and has been that teamsters hauling loads on horse drawn carts use to sit on the rear left horse and they stayed to the right side so the could make sure they didn't knock carts with other carts passing in the opposite direction when they started siting on the carts they stayed with the same set up and it just came down the line over time that way I have no idea why the few that drive on the wrong side do. I wonder if they have more side swiping incidents?
  • @Cringe Shrapnel

    Roger. What they taught us in Fourth Grade US History ("Our Country, Our People" or similar -- maybe you had to survive through that class too?) is that when Conestoga wagons came into widespread use, it happens they were assembled with the driver's seat on the left side of the wagon. The teams started driving on the right side of the road so the driver had a clearer view.

    They never told us what you added, that what the driver needed to view was his clearance in traffic. Thanks!

    There is at least one example of a plain old oppositional reaction to England: the name of Tennessee's future capital was changed from "Nashboro," the distasteful British-derived handle -- which listeners probably also remember -- to "Nashville," in honor of the French who from pure kindness (lol) were helping us evict the British.

    Steve (El Chueco)
  • Napoleon started the convention of driving on the right because there was no convention before he started moving his armies across Europe and the chaos was slowing him down.

    i don't know why or when other countries chose their sides.

    BTW, I think the weight of Pinewood Derby should be equally distributed. And the car should be as dense as possible.
  • I understand, though I can not verify, that when the automobile was first being built 100+ years ago there were two theories as to which side the sterring wheel should be on and it has to do with the complexity of shifting gears, afterall, there was no such thing as an "automatic" transmission. In America the common consensus was that it would be easier for the majority right handed people to steer passively with the left hand while concentrating on shifting with right hand. Of course, the British, who think they know better than we do, contend that steering is the more complicated task which would require the right hand for better control, thus leaving the left hand for the less complicated task of shifting. Now as far as the origin of this story is concerned I cannot verify. It could all be bunk, but it sounds good to me so I subscribe to the idea. However, as far as which side is easier to drive and shift from I draw on my own experience of trying to teach a teenager how to drive a manual transmission while shifting from the passenger seat. If you have ever attempted this, you well know it is very difficult to do, even when assuming the student driver is clutching properly. I can drive with either hand effortlessly but I can only shift with my right hand. As such, I submit that America got it right and driving on the right is the more logical choice, unless of course you are amongst the 10% of the population who happens to be left handed or British.
  • Good descriptions of the reason we drive on the right: with the addition that the drover sat on the left horse BECAUSE you mount a horse on the left side, a very difficult thing to do on the right hand horse of a team!
  • Many antique US cars had the driver on the right side (like the 1911 Regal my dad had). So it's not an old horse carriage choice.
  • There is a lpt of other silly stuff, in the olden days of 1 sided cut keys, Crysler cars had the cut side up and GM the cut side down. Chrysler you cranked one way to roll the window up, gm was the opposite. It even continues to which side of the button you press for electric windows to go up or down. My best guess is a loyalty thing. Dang windows roll the wrong way, dang drivers are on the wrong side of the road.
  • In jousting duels, I imagine the custom must have been to keep to the left. On TV and Movie recreations they show the riders keep to the left. It makes sense, as it allows both opponents to hold their jousting sticks w/their right hand.

    Even if you were just riding down the road on horseback, it would make sense to keep to the left. You could shake hands, borrow some tobacco, saying hello to neighbors and friends you meet, using your right hand. Or defend yourself with your right hand if your horsebacked neighbor was mad at you and whacking you with a stick for trampling your horse over his newly planted corn. Anyway, it's not difficult to imagine horse riding courtesy as being a good reason keeping to the left would become a national custom.

    But when you introduce commercial scale "economy" wagons, wagons which have no driver's seat, into a country's landscape, it would be natural for the driver to sit on the left side horse, making it easier to use the whip from his right hand. So it would make sense for those drivers to drive on the right. And since they are the biggest thing on the road, everyone else would naturally follow suit.

    That's my theory anyway, and I'm sticking to it!
  • Well, I had to read all the posts before I could chime in, but Dustin Johy, mentioned my thots about it. Most people are right handed and ir is easier to shift gears, adjust the rear=view mirroe, or the heater or the radio with one's right hand,. I don't think the earliest cars had radios tho.
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