Did you know?
It is time we had another look at the vexed topic of right hand drive and left hand drive. We came to the conclusion that many French cars retained right hand drive, despite driving on the right, until the 1950s. This seems to have been partly due to snobbishness – it implied that one always or sometimes had a chauffeur who found it more convenient to step out directly onto the pavement to open the rear door for his passengers. There is also the suggestion that France and other countries with mountains placed the driver next to the road edge for safety – indeed Italy had right hand drive trucks until recent times.
Up to the 1920s many American, Italian and German cars came only with right hand drive and American fire engines favoured this layout up to the early 1930s. In general it was cheaper cars for owner-drivers that had left hand drive in their homelands, examples being the first Chevrolets, Citroens and Opels.
Plainly some markets required left hand drive cars from an early stage and British manufacturers responded. Initially it seems to have been Lanchester with cars for Brewster in America in 1920 but by the early 1930s the most common makes offered left hand drive. Rarer ones that also did were Invicta from 1927, Rolls-Royce and in the later 1930s, Jensen for such illustrious customers as Clark Gable.
So, on which side did foreigners drive? This is where it becomes really complicated. A 1907 continental touring guide from ‘The Car’ states only Bohemia stays on the left like Britain and passes on the right. However there were many anomalies as Italian towns with over 25000 inhabitants could decide individually and Milan and Turin for example favoured the left whilst Genoa had no hard and fast rule. Tourists were advised to enquire as soon as they reached the outskirts of a town!
In 1926 a French touring guide claimed that America had no hard and fast rules either, whilst countries that definitely drove on the left were Austria, Hungary, Portugal, Sweden, Croatia, Slovenia and parts of Switzerland closest to Italy. Not surprisingly the British Empire followed Britain’s lead as did bordering countries and several that adjoined the main route to the East via the Suez Canal.
There is all manner of uncertainty as to why different sides arose. The suggestion is that in horse riding days one drew one’s sword with the right hand and therefore, out of mistrust for fellow road users, one always tried to meet them right hand to right hand. This makes sense but falls down when one takes into account exactly the same problem existing abroad yet the solution being the opposite.
With horse drawn vehicles, postillions rode the nearest horse to the left (nearside) front wheel and always mounted from the left. They held the reins in their left hands and the whip in their right. Apparently postillions operated the same in America and Europe as they did in Britain, so this hardly explains why they moved over to the right side of the road. One explanation is that they were then nearest to traffic coming the other way – which must surely have been just as necessary on our own generally narrower roads.
Curiously the rules of the sea have always been to pass on the right, which makes travelling on the right side of the road all the more logical, regardless of where the steering wheel is placed.
Apparently the majority of people have always been right handed, which means that in the past we have protected our hearts and the left side of our heads (which controls the right side of our bodies) with a shield held by our weakest arm, leaving the right arm to wield a weapon.
There is plainly much more research to be done but everything so far points to valid reasons for doing what we do whether we are brought up in countries with right or left hand drive. As one wag put it in 1809:
‘The rule of the road is a paradox quite, in driving your carriage along;
If you keep to the left – you are sure to go right.
If you keep to the right – you are wrong.’
Finally a few more dates of changeover. In addition to Sweden which we discussed last time, Panama, which had favoured the left as in Jamaica and the Virgin Islands, switched to the right in 1943 because of the opening of the Inter-American Highway.
At the start of 1946 China switched to the right but Japan and Hong Kong stayed on the left. Korea had driven on the right, but was forced to the left after it was invaded by Japan in the 1930s and then moved back to the right in 1946. Conversely Paris in 1911 nearly switched to the left because the lack of visibility when overtaking with a right hand drive car from the right to left hand side of the road. Which is of course exactly what British motorists have to contend with every day on the Continent.