Why Do the Brits Drive on the Left?

Updated on June 21, 2018
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I am an actor, comedian, writer, teacher, historian and businessman. I'm currently studying at the Open University.

The Savoy

What is unique about the approach to London's Savoy Hotel? It's the only road in the entire United Kingdom that you have to drive on the right. As the approach is a private road leading to the hotel and theatre as opposed to a public one, driving on the right does not contravene UK traffic laws.

The building stands on the Strand, on the site of the Savoy Palace which belonged to John of Gaunt, regent to Richard II before he was old enough to rule himself. It was burnt down during the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, though it isn't known whether the rioters kept to the right or not.

So why does one have to drive on the right at the Savoy? It's all to do with the design of the Savoy Court at the front of the hotel, which makes it extremely awkward to manoeuvre when coming in on the left from the Strand. According to Rory McFarlane of the Savoy's Press Office, back in the days of horse drawn carriages, a lady would traditionally sit behind the driver, who would be able to open the door without walking round the vehicle and allow her to walk straight into the hotel from the carriage. Peter Jackson of the London Topographic Society adds that as the theatre is on the right, it enables taxi drivers to drop off their fares outside then collect fares from the hotel on the way out again.

The approach to the Savoy. Keep right.
The approach to the Savoy. Keep right.

Jousting

Purely practical reasons then. So why do Brits drive on the left anyway? It goes back to the jousting tournaments of old. The majority of knights were right-handed (and those that weren't probably had to learn to fight right-handed pretty early on or be accused of witchcraft), and therefore held their lance in their right hand while charging down the left-hand side of the track towards their opponent. Similar tournaments were held all over Europe in Medieval times. Every country in Europe kept to the left in days of yore. Britain's entire equestrian class was French speaking. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, Britain was ruled by French-speaking aristocrats who rode on the left and held their swords in their right hands.

So if the French ran the place in Medieval times, how come they don't drive on the left too?

Ironically it was a French leader (well, Corsican) who changed it all. Napoleon was left handed. It was he who established established the first road system in Europe and insisted his troops march/ride on the right, introducing right hand driving across the continent. However, after his defeat at Trafalgar, Napoleon abandoned his plans of invading Britain and moved east, eventually meeting his Waterloo. Consequently the British kept to the left. Other countries, such as Portugal and the Austro-Hungarian Empire also kept to the left, but as the US came to dominate the automobile industry by the middle of the 20th Century, due to the left hand drive of American cars, most countries that drove on the left changed sides out of necessity. However Britain resisted any attempts at change.

So what about India, Australia and other countries that drive on the left?

Altogether there are 78 countries that drive on the left. The majority are former imperial colonies of the British Empire such as Australia, India (and the subcontinent before the borders changed), New Zealand and all the English speaking Caribbean and South Pacific islands. Other European nations such as the Dutch and the Portuguese had their own colonies where they exported their riding/driving on the left habits. Napoleon may have changed the traffic laws in Europe, but he never ventured as far afield as Indonesia and Mozambique for example, which adopted the left hand drive that had been established by the Imperial powers and never changed.

A surprisingly quiet Japanese dual-carriageway
A surprisingly quiet Japanese dual-carriageway

What about Japan and Thailand? They weren't colonies.

Japan, like medieval Europe, had their own class of equestrian, the samurai. Once again, practicality was key, as most were right-handed and therefore riding on the left with a sword hanging from one's belt made mounting and dismounting easier.

In 1872, Britain helped Japan build its first railway, which followed the British specifications and ran on the left hand side. After World War II, while the island of Okinawa was occupied by US Marines, the island reverted to driving on the right until 1978 when it changed back to the left.

In Thailand the reasons are to do with trade.Thailand (nee Siam) was a big trading partner of the British Empire and therefore followed the British highway code. Interestingly, Thailand did propose to change sides in 2014, but they appear to have changed their minds about it. Bangkok is notorious for being one of the worst places for traffic jams in the world.

A dual carriageway in Bangkok or Krung-Thep if you're from there
A dual carriageway in Bangkok or Krung-Thep if you're from there

So there you have it. Next time you're driving on the right, spare a thought for Napoleon. Despot and meglomaniac that he was, not many people have influenced social infrastructure as much. Next time you're driving on the left, think of the knights who never realised how much influence they'd have on the future. Just don't carry a lance while you're doing it.

Sources

theguardian.com

London, The Biography-Peter Ackroyd

Open University

New Statesman

Worldatlas.com

Britannica.com


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