Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A Quaint British Custom?

A Quaint British Custom?  - Driving on the Left.

            If you are planning to visit the UK and happen to come from one of the many countries that drive on the wrong side of the road, the following advice, direct from the Ministry of Transport, is for you:

            “Visitors are informed that in the United Kingdom traffic drives on the left-hand side of the road. In the interests of safety, you are advised to practise this in your country of origin for a week or two before driving in the UK.”

            This week’s blog post was inspired by reading an article about the origins of why the British drive on the left side of the road. Apparently, the convention for driving on the left dates back to medieval jousts and the dominance of right-handedness!

            During a medieval joust, two knights would face each other across the lists, gallop towards each other with the intention of unseating the opponent with a lance. Since most men are right handed, the lance was gripped with the right arm and balanced across the body so that the lance-head was angled to the left.

            However, to me this idea seems flawed. In the photo the horses pass left flank to left flank, but if this was translated to the road, the rider would be on the right hand side of the road - this calls for more research!

            It appears that in violent times, such as feudal Europe, since most people are right handed, swordsmen preferred to pass in the street with their sword arm (ie right arm) closer to any opponent ie walk of the left side. This also reduced the chance of the scabbard, which was worn on the left side of the body, hitting people, and kept the sword further away from felons.

            Added to that, it is easier for a right-handed person to mount a horse from the left side. With a sword worn to the left for right-handed access across the body, the right leg is free to swing unimpeded across the horses back. Obviously it is safer to mount and dismount on the edge of the road (ie the left) rather than in the middle of a stream of traffic (to the right)

            The continental custom for driving on the right was introduced by the Emperor Napoleon, who happened to be left handed . Since it was he who established the first road system across Europe he adopted right-hand drive.

            So why chose the right side of the road at all?

            In the US in the late 1700’s, large farm wagons were pulled by teamsters which involved several teams of horses hitched to one wagon. These vehicles had no driver’s seat but were controlled by the driver sitting on the left rear horse, so that his right arm was free to whip up the horses. Also, when sitting on the left he could watch to make sure he was sure his wagon was clear of oncoming wheels - and therefore kept to the right side of the road.

            Added to this, during the French Revolution (1789) driving on the right gained a boost. This was because the aristocracy travelled on the left, forcing peasants out of the way to the right. When the aristocrats were trying to keep a low profile, they to adopted the right side of the road!

            Don’t you just love history!!!


  1. Yes, gotta love the historical roots. But what I love EVEN MORE is the advice to practice on the wrong side of the road for a couple of weeks. British humor (humour) is the business.

  2. I agree Kate, it made me chuckle - even if I do say so myself.
    Grace x

  3. Very interesting, I myself have been known to go the wrong way here and there. Stupid one way streets, and lets not start on parallel parking.

  4. It really is fun to learn the whys and wherefores of customs. Thanks for bringing this out!

  5. interesting post Grace. It reminds me of how clever it was to have medieval castle staircases to spiral upward in a clockwise direction giving defenders coming down the stairs the advatage of using their swords in the right hand. keep the good blogs coming!

  6. Thank you Lynn and Debra, and Judith - how intersting - that's exactly the sort of historical trivia I love. Why - I could write a whole blog post about spiral staircases! IDEA!
    Grace x

  7. That's really fascinating - we learn something new every day.

  8. Really enjoyed this post, Grace. I love the pictures - I've watched several jousting events. We live not far from a stud that provides horses for films all over the world, and a couple of years ago we attended one of their medieval banquests with jousting and other medieval equestrian demonstrations while we ate.

    Laughed out loud at the traffic advice!)

  9. Ann - that's why I love history so much - all th little things we take for granted, when you dig - they have a reason steeped in history.

    Hywela - how exciting- you are so lucky to have had the opportunity to attend a medieval banquet and joust - a dream come true!

  10. I always wondered why they drive on the left! Great post!


Due to the amount of SPAM I have been forced to moderate comments. If you are a spammer - please go away! You comment will not be posted and you are wasting your own time.