Why do the English drive on the left?
In the Middle Ages you kept to the left for the simple
reason that you never knew who you'd meet on the road in those days. You wanted
to make sure that a stranger passed on the right so you could go for your sword
in case he proved unfriendly.
This custom was given official sanction in 1300 AD, when Pope Boniface VIII
invented the modern science of traffic control by declaring that pilgrims headed
to Rome should keep left.
The papal system prevailed until the late 1700s, when teamsters in the United
States and France began hauling farm products in big wagons pulled by several
pairs of horses.
These wagons had no driver's seat. Instead the driver sat on the left rear
horse, so he could keep his right arm free to lash the team.
Since you were sitting on the left, naturally you wanted everybody to pass on
the left so you could look down and make sure you kept clear of the other guy's
wheels. Ergo, 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,
and in the ensuing years many states and Canadian provinces followed suit.
In France the keep-right custom was established in much the same way. An added
impetus was that, this being the era of the French Revolution and all, people
figured, hey, no pope is gonna tell ME what to do.
Later Napoleon enforced the keep-right rule in all countries occupied by his
armies. The custom endured even after the empire was destroyed.
In small-is-beautiful Britain, though, they didn't use monster wagons that
required the driver to ride a horse. Instead the guy sat on a seat mounted on
What's more, he usually sat on the right side of the seat so the whip wouldn't
hang up on the load behind him when he flogged the horses. (Then as now, most
people did their flogging right-handed.)
So the English continued to drive on the left, not realizing that the tide of
history was running against them and they would wind up being ridiculed by folks
like you with no appreciation of life's little ironies.
Keeping left first entered English law in 1756, with the enactment of an
ordinance governing traffic on the London Bridge, and ultimately became the rule
throughout the British Empire.
The trend among nations over the years has been toward driving on the right, but
Britain has done its best to stave off global homogenization.
Its former colony India remains a hotbed of leftist sentiment, as does
Indonesia, which was occupied by the British in the early 19th century. The
English minister to Japan achieved the coup of his career in 1859 when he
persuaded his hosts to make keep-left the law in the future home of Toyota and
Nonetheless, the power of the right has been growing steadily. When Germany
annexed Austria in 1938, it brutally suppressed the latter's keep-left rights,
and much the same happened in Czechoslovakia in 1939.
The last holdouts in mainland Europe, the Swedes, finally switched to the right
in 1967 because most of the countries they sold Saabs and Volvos to were
righties and they got tired of having to make different versions for domestic
use and export.
Explanation taken from: Cecil Adams, "Return of the
Straight Dope" (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994).