Why do the British drive on the left?
Why do the British always have to do things differently?
Well, it’s not just the British – about a quarter of the world drives on the left but then, most of them are former British colonies with the notable exception of Japan.
In actual fact, up until the turn of the 18th Century, practically the whole world travelled on the left side of the road. In those often unpredictable and violent times, there was no local police force to protect you and maintain order. People carried swords (if they could afford them) and staves to protect themselves. And, since most people are right-handed, which side of the road would you want to pass if a stranger came toward you?
Think about it. If you passed on the right side, your sword arm would be farthest away from the person you were passing; hardly the best position for optimum protection. On the other hand, by passing on the left, your sword arm would always be between yourself and the person you were passing, in a 180° arc from front to back.
So, what happened in 18th Century Europe to change this? Or perhaps a better question would be – who happened in 18th Century Europe? The answer is, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte – who just happened to be left-handed! As the French armies swept through Europe, Napoleon ordered them to march on the right so that he would be able to keep his sword arm between himself and any opponent.
From then on, any country that was colonised by France would change to drive on the right. This practice spread to the newly colonised Americas, with the French in some southern states and on the Canadian coast; the Spanish and Portuguese in South America; and the Dutch in New York.
Step forward to the early 20th Century and the invention of the motor car in the USA. By this time, the gun had also been invented which provided almost 360° so the sword arm was no longer a factor. Add to this the enthusiasm in the USA for anything which would further distance itself from its British colonial past and you see it is no surprise that the US car industry elected to build cars to drive on the right.
Since the production of quality motor cars in the early years was dominated by the USA, many countries followed suit and changed to driving on the right. The big exception, as has already been noted, was Japan: a country which remained a feudal society until the turn of the 20th Century and where Samurai warriors roamed the streets – with swords.