Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Just one of our many quirks...

Many of our visitors from Europe and America comment on how odd it seems to drive on the left, a relatively unusual feature of the UK that we share with parts of the British Commonwealth like Australia and New Zealand, and with Japan.

The reasons why the UK and some other countries stubbornly go against the prevailing tide are somewhat lost to history, but a popular theory is that the preference goes back to the days of the Romans. Back in those more violent times, travellers commonly wore swords on their left side, and wielded it with their right hand. Consequently people tended to walk on the left side of a path, to avoid getting their sword tangled up with that of a passer by, and if they came across anyone hostile, their scabbard was safely out of reach of their opponent, and most right handed people could more effectively defend themselves with their right arm. Walking on the left was such an established practice, that it was actually codified by the pope.

Perhaps the better question is why the rest of the world decided to switch to the right, particularly when having a right hand drive car with manual transmission, means that most people only have their weaker left hand on the steering wheel when they change gear?

This may have something to do with the huge, horse - drawn wagons which were used to transport goods in America and France. The driver would typically sit on the left, rear horse, so his stronger right arm was free to hold a whip. This also meant that it was easier for him to drive on the right side of the road, so he could see his left wheels, and make sure he had enough room to get past any on-coming wagons. There may also have been political reasons for the difference, as the American revolutionaries wanted to deliberately break with British tradition, and similarly Napoleon wanted to differentiate France's laws and customs from the hated British.

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