Archive for Thursday, September 20, 2007

Notes: Driving on the right side of the road

September 20, 2007

Not long after the United States won its independence from England, a decision was made that has influenced much of the world. Americans decided to drive on the right side of the road. Soon the French were doing the same thing and now, the vast majority of the world drives on the right side of the road.

According to a recent study, 72 percent of the world's traffic uses the right-hand lane. This means that only a few countries, most notably England and Australia, use the left-hand side.

I talked with a resident who had driven in England and Ireland and he quickly pointed out that it took a lot of getting used to. He said the major problem came when getting ready to turn. "You really had to think what lane you wanted to be in," he said.

Another friend said it was tough at first, but he "sort of got used to it." I have yet to talk with an American who really liked the experience.

In my case, I have driven on the left hand side only once in my life. It was 40 years ago and in a town in Australia with a population of less than 1,000, so there wasn't much traffic. While I could make it around a small town with virtually no traffic, I would never be adventuresome enough to try traffic in London, Brisbane or Sydney.

There are many reasons given for the American and French switch to the right-side driving. One of the most popular is that the French and English were mortal enemies in the 18th and 19th centuries and the French wanted nothing to do with anything English. The same reason is given for the United States. After we won our freedom, we wanted to cast off anything English and driving on the left hand side was one tradition that was tossed out.

Others say that wasn't the case at all. Since 85 or 90 percent of the people in the world are right handed, it was easier for teamsters to hold the reins in their left hand and whack the horses with a whip held in their right hands. Others said that the construction of wagons in France was different from England and that being on the right hand side of the road was more convenient.

There are those who give Napoleon credit for some of the movement away from driving on the left hand side of the road. His French armies conquered a large portion of Europe and they required driving on the right hand side of the road.

I was a bit surprised on our recent trip to Scandinavia to find that traffic was on the right-hand side of the street. It seems that in Sweden, a referendum was held in 1963 and 85 percent voted against a proposed change from driving on the left side of the road to the right side. This, apparently, didn't deter the parliament and in a classic example of disregard for public opinion, they mandated a change in driving and did it with a bang. They decreed that at 5 a.m. on Sept. 3, 1967, all traffic would change lanes, so to speak. They uncovered the signs and from that moment on the Swedes have driven on the right-hand side of the road. A guide said there were no major problems caused by the switch.

Denmark and Norway also drive on the right-hand side

In the United States, the first law mandating driving on the right side was passed in 1804. It was of limited scope and only dealt with traffic on the Lancaster Turnpike -- from Lancaster, Pa., to Philadelphia. The first statewide mandate was passed in 1813 in New Jersey. Probably such early laws were not necessary. Most of the roads of that time were narrow.

What surprised me is that early U.S. automakers didn't always have the steering wheel on the left side of the vehicle. The Ford Motor Co. was the first to standardize the placement of the steering wheel in 1908. Due to the success of the Model T it wasn't long before all other companies followed the practice.

It should be pointed out that there is one place in the USA where persons still drive on the left-hand side of the road. The United States Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark during World War I and they still drive on the left-hand side of the road.

Yes, I enjoy traveling and seeing the world and learning about other countries. With that said, there is one thing that I won't do. You've probably guessed by now that I won't take the wheel and "drive on the wrong side of the road."

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