I was on a shuttle going from Gatwick airport to a hotel in Crawley when I looked out the window and saw an empty car driving alongside the shuttle. Now, I’d heard of self-driving cars, but I’d never seen one without passengers before. That’s when I remembered I was in the UK and people drive on the wrong side of the road and drivers sit on the wrong side of the car.
People all over the world used to drive on the left side of the road. Now, only around 76 countries and territories (around 30% of the world) still drive on the left side, lots of them former British colonies.
The reason people drive on the left side dates back to the Romans who steered their chariots and carts with their left hand, keeping their right hand free to draw weapons and attack oncoming enemies. Soldiers also marched on the left side of the road and pilgrims travelling to Rome were also advised, by the Pope, to keep to the left.
This practice continued on into the violent times that were the Middle Ages, as most people were right-handed. Those who were left-handed may have also kept to the left as they were often accused of practising witchcraft. Similarly, castle stairways spiralled upwards clockwise so defending soldiers could attack around the twist while those going up the stairs could not.
Towards the end of the 18th century, people started hauling large carts pulled by several horses. Since there was no driver’s seat, the driver would sit on the rear horse to the left – allowing him to whip all the other horses with his right hand. Naturally, people started driving on the right side of the road for better visibility when passing by other carts and thus avoiding collision.
Another driving force was the fact that Napoleon was left-handed and later enforced the right-hand side rule in all French territories. However, since in Britain there wasn’t much need for huge carts, which were more suited for larger roads and travelling across long distances, people continued using the left side of the road. Plus, the territories that had resisted Napoleon all kept to the left, including Portugal.
Over time, countries started switching, one by one, to the right-side of the road. The United States switched to the right after gaining independence from England, and Canada later followed to facilitate driving across the border.
Portugal switched in 1928, and the change took place throughout the whole country on the same day. By the time the Second World War came along, the remaining countries that still drove on the left-side switched to the right after being invaded by Germany. Austria was forced to make the switch overnight which sent the country into havoc, since drivers couldn’t see the road signs on the other side of the road.
After World War II, Sweden was the last mainland country still driving on the left and was faced with massive pressure from the neighbouring countries to make the switch. This was mainly due to Sweden sharing many small roads with both Norway and Finland; and with no clearly defined borders, no one could keep up with which country they were actually driving in.
In 1967, they finally made the switch and, to this day, Great Britain, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus are the only European countries to still drive on the left. All of them islands.
In the 1960s, Great Britain actually considered switching to the right-side of the road, but the idea was quickly scrapped. Just like the idea of using the European currency or the thought of actually remaining in the European Union.
Whilst passing through the UK, I saved myself the trouble of attempting to drive and instead walked around the surrounding towns, which also allowed me to pop into the pub and order a pint for the price of a full course meal in Portugal. Luckily, the weather was very Portuguese as I landed during a heat wave.
My visit was brief and, unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to visit much this time round. I only spent a little over a day in the UK before flying over to Houston where, there, they at least drove on the ‘right’ side of the road.
By Jay Costa Owen
Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.