Driving on the Left Side of the Road


The primary goal of our blog is to spread knowledge – not only deep historical knowledge or facts surrounding current events that have become somewhat muddled, but also random, everyday knowledge; knowledge about the kind of things that make you wonder “Huh, I  wonder where that came from.”  During Abe’s Etymology Hour, that is the sort of question we will attempt to answer. Etymology is the study of the origin of words and their development throughout history. We are particularly fascinated with words, and constantly find ourselves wondering where a word or phrase came from.  However, this  piece will not be limited to words – it will look into the origins of a plethora of everyday practices, items, habits, you name it!  If you have any ideas for us, leave us a comment and we will write a piece about it.

Today, we will look at an age-old question that has vexed us colonists for years – Why do the British drive on the left side of the road while most of the rest of the world drives on the right?  This can be eternally infuriating for Americans traveling to the UK, especially for those who have spent decades driving on the right side and know no other way.  While there were many economic and community planning factors behind these developments, one of the primary reasons has an unexpected but simple explanation: Right-Handedness and the age old tradition of dueling.  

An overwhelming majority of people in the world are right-handed.  Back in the day, it was so prevalent that it was seen as a sign of being normal.  Parents would even force their kids to abandon their left hand in order to become right-handed.  When you couple this fact with the practice of dueling, things start to become more clear.  Dueling was THE way to settle a dispute in the Medieval and Rennaisance eras in Britain, especially among nobility and the wealthy.  Thus, when riding on horseback towards an opponent with your sword in your (right) hand,  each dueler needed to be on the left.  This practice stuck and continued on when cars came into the fold.

So, why is it different here in the States?  I will tell you why – guns and Native Americans.  Americans became enamored with Native American culture and the wild west at a very early stage in this country’s history.  When hunting, Natives riding horses would shoot bows and arrows, and subsequently, guns across their body.  Given our early discussion of the pervasiveness of being right-handed, this meant shooting right to left and riding on the right side of your opponent/prey.

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This practice was adopted nationwide as being the cool way to ride and shoot.  By the advent of motor vehicles, almost every American would ride to the right of anything coming their way in order to be able to get a good shot of it across their body as it passed.  Accordingly, cars were driven on the right side of the road as well.  And that, my friends, is how we got to where we are today – Dueling and Right-Handedness.  Who would have guessed??

Source: What Einstein Told his Barber, by Robert Wolke

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One thought on “Driving on the Left Side of the Road

  1. Pingback: The Bar (And Not the Good Kind) | *Abraham Thinkin'*

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