A Brief History of Driving
The rules of the road inevitably shape the way we travel. Man and cart made their way along the left-hand side of ancient Roman pathways, and this was no accident. The vast majority of humans are right-handed and right-eye-dominant. By keeping left, they could most easily identify and wield a weapon against any oncoming threat.
The Romans were a clever bunch and built straight roads across their burgeoning empire, from the Appian Way in Italy to the trunk roads (like the A5) that still connect Great Britain. With reins in their left hand and a whip in their right, Roman riders were as ergonomically sound as modern-day right-seated drivers whose dominant right hand never leaves the steering wheel. The entire world followed this logic until the French got involved. I blame Napoleon.
The Gauls began hauling goods in bulk using teams of horses whose master was seated on the rearmost horse to the left, for no good reason other than to be different. In order to jostle their cumbersome wagons past oncoming traffic, they had no choice but to drive past on the right to observe the clearance. Napoleon, who was left-handed and naturally biased, was so impressed that he imposed the system everywhere he went. Wellington’s armies prevented this madness spreading to Britain and her colonies, but the rot was setting in.
The Americans started using French pack-horses and adopted the ‘keep right’ rule, largely to defy their former British colonial masters. The Canadians eventually followed suit in 1923 to stave off carnage at their border. Hitler enforced driving on the right across the parts of Europe that Napoleon had unaccountably missed and China took the plunge in 1946 to accommodate imported US gas-guzzling cars.
So today, two-thirds of the world’s population drives on the wrong side of the road, using the usually weaker left eye to check the nearside wing mirror and overtake, all because of a little Frenchman and a disagreement over some tea in Boston. Britain, India, Australia and Japan remain notable exceptions to the global decline in common sense and are civilized, tea-drinking nations all.
Research in 1969 by JJ Leeming showed that countries driving on the left have a lower collision rate than countries driving on the right. Cyclists and horse riders typically mount from the left-hand side, placing them safely on the kerb when vehicles are travelling on the left. If you still don’t believe me, then check out the military: all aircraft carriers from British to Chinese have their control towers on the right-hand side so pilots can approach for landing and take-off from the left, with their dominant eye watching out for the only building they might accidentally crash into for a hundred miles.