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Who’s Right? (And Who’s Left?)

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

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)
http://www.amphicars.com/acleft.htm

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.

Regards!
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.

Remember way back to the beginnings of this country. People lived miles apart and their main mode of transportation-more than one person- was the horse driven wagon. Going to the general store was a long ride. We ‘steered’ that wagon sitting in the left seat. Why? Because when we met our neighbor-or another person on the road-THAT person was sitting on his left also and it was very easy to visit with both people sitting on the left, each facing the opposite direction. And they wanted to visit…living so far from each other. Local news and goings on was important then. Just picture all the westerns you have seen! Also…why do you think the passenger seat is called ‘shotgun’ even today? Because in those rough days of the wild west…the driver-on the left-drove the wagon/stagecoach and the man on the right had the shotgun and was the ‘protection’. I am a certified driving instructor in Nebraska, that’s what I tell my teenage driving students, that’s my story and I sticking with it. BTW I think the right handed knight theory is a stretch anyway.

I am right handed and I lived and drove in Japan for three years, they drive on the left. Frankly I found it very easy to get used to shifting with my left hand and driving on the left side of the road, It was harder to get used to driving on the right when I got back.

My first experience wasn’t that good though. Right after buying a car, I got on a curvy road to “test” it and the on the first left hand sweeping curve my wife says “Hey your awfully close to the guardrail”. I said “no, I’m 4 feet away” When I got home, I noticed had two white stripes down the left side of the car.

I had heard the Conestoga Wagon theory before, for why Americans drive on the right. When I was visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands a few years ago, we visited the island of St. Thomas. As you may, or may not know, the U S bout those islands from Denmark around WWI to keep them from becoming a German Submarine base. There the cars drive on the left side, but the cars are all left hand drive, being mostly American makes, or models sold in the US. It was very odd to see left hand drive cars using the " wrong" side of the road.

It even continues to which side of the button you press for electric windows to go up or down.

That difference recently came to an end. Regulations were put in place in order to eliminate deaths and injuries from power windows going up when children were looking out an open window kneeling on the armrest - and consequently on the window button.

Now one must “lift” in order for a power window to go up. A kneeling child’s pressure can no longer cause a window to go up.

@GeorgeSanJose
I had absolutely no theory till I read yours. That’s mine too now. That’s the advantage of being on the left.

Good theories all! However, the ancient Romans drove on the left for reasons indicated.

Napoleon was not only a “revolutionary”, but he was also left handed. So he forced the change to the right side of the road, and forced most of Europe to go along. He also introduced the Metric System.

Countries colonized by Britain generally drove left, but with independence many, like Nigeria went to the right. The USA had a choice, and Henry Ford institutionalizing the right makes some sense. Most of Canada, North of the border, drove left, but the various provinces saw the ligh with the US developing faster and going right, they went along.

Some countries, like Thailand, were never colonized, but they were surrounded by British colonies, so they stayed left. Japan held up Britain as the model of modern development, so they stayed left.

The US Virgin Island you drive on the Left but all the cars are imported from the US. While I lived there I had to think Drive in the ditch Drive in the Ditch to keep from driving in the wrong lane.
A web link said one of the reasons the island may have gone to the left hand lane was so the cart drivers wanted to see how close they were to the edge of the cliff. I know how that feels guard rails are not a big thing on the mountain roads islands that are only wide enough for 1 1/2 lanes. Great place to visit but always interesting to live there.

Click mentioned the last country to change over was Sweden. Myanmar changed overnight without any advanced planning/warning because a superstitious leader so mandated. Although this was in 1970 a vast majority of cars (even police), buses and trucks still have the steering wheel on the right.

Lots of good arguments here on why we drive on which side. Not sure I can accept the right-handed gear shift theory if I consider Ford’s sales dominance - Model T’s shifted from foot pedals and had hand controls for throttle and spark. The Conestoga wagon and the 2-horse work wagon both have seen to make sense. However we got here, the practical problems of traffic transition from right to left and back will likely limit right-hand-drive cars to islands like England, Australia, Japan and New Zealand. Sweden changed because of the traffic mess at their borders shifting travel lanes. Mostly land-locked countries have already changed for that same reason. India is an exception because although they drive on the left (British colony), India is very big and no one seems to actually keep to their lanes anyway! 3-lane roads are northbound, southbound and “chicken lane” in the center!