Nobody stays awake at night wondering why Botswana drives on the left side of the road and Austria drives on the right, but now that we are on the topic, read about today’s driving norms with roots that go back to the riding and coaching practices of centuries past.
Keep left: Riders, knights, mounted officers. If a knight was riding on the left side of the road, it was safer and easier to mount on the left side near the edge of the road instead of in the middle with horse traffic or pedestrian congestion. Also, riding on the left enabled right-handed sword carrying riders to be closer to their potential enemies or to extend a hand in friendship. The exception to this was Napoleon, who was left-handed and preferred to ride on the right with his troops and hold his sword in the left hand. He established a right-hand rule for all the countries he conquered.
Keep right: When France and the USA began hauling farm products in massive wagons with no drivers up top, they stayed right and used postilion riders who rode the left side leader (front) horse or left side wheeler (rear) horse of the wagon. Postilion riders could then see oncoming vehicles and use the whip in their right hand.
Keep left: In England, if a coach was driven by a coachman, they normally kept to the left side of the road, sat on the right side of the seat and held the whip in their right hand. This enabled him to keep a comfortable and safe distance from oncoming traffic on the right while his whip – with the tendency to go towards the left – would not hit the oncoming vehicle or passengers. Also, a left turn using the left hand – holding reins only and no whip – was faster and easier if an accident was imminent. Keeping left in England became law in 1756, with the enactment of an ordinance governing traffic on the London Bridge.
In countries where coaches or drags were driven by coachmen, left hand road driving was common whereas in France, postilion riders who rode the left side horse were dominant and the right hand road driving was preferred and never changed.
Did You Know?
• The heavy Conestoga wagons that brought settlers to the American west were massive vehicles best suited to being driven on the right with postilions. When lighter stagecoaches were created much later, the right hand driving was the established practice and it never altered.
• Ancient Romans drove on the left and proof of this was found when a Roman quarry was unearthed in 1998 near Swindon, England. Ruts on the left side when the carts where empty and entering the quarry were much shallower than the ruts on the right when the carts were full leaving the quarry.
• More evidence comes from an ancient denarius coin from between 50 BC and 50AD showing two riders passing each other right shoulder to right shoulder, therefore on the left side of the road.
• Today many countries once colonised by the French drive on the right and those colonised by the British Empire drive on the left. In Canada, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec have always driven on the right because of the French settlers. When the English gained control from France, they permitted right hand driving to remain.
• While mounted knights have often been credited with creating some of the initial rules of the road, historians feel they played a relatively small part. Most medieval road traffic would have been commoners and serfs and when an aristocrat came riding by, these poorest of the poor scattered into the ditches and fields…no rules there. If knights did establish any road rules between themselves they were probably created out of courtesy and would certainly never have translated into protocols for an entire population.