Bicycle Diaries: Why right? Why left?

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Why right? Why left?

why we roll with the traffic

The Independent newspaper recently ran a double-page spread on the various, mostly rude, epithets deployed by foreigners to describe the British - such as limeys (chiefly US), pommies (Australia), les rosbifs (France) and rooineks (South Africa).

As spreads go, it was rather a thin one, which had to be fleshed out with generic terms for white men, like mzungu (E and S Africa) and gwai lo (China). But it did include one startling revelation: the Dutch, the paper said, refer to the British as linksrijers - left-drivers.

Oh, those Dutch. How reassuring to know that's the worst they can say about the Brits. I mean: You, you LEFT-DRIVER, you! is not an insult likely to start a fight.

But behind it rests a major fallacy: that driving on the left is a uniquely British eccentricity. Even the Brits believe this; I have often heard people insisting that the EU is on the brink of issuing an edict and forcing an immediate changeover.

Well, anything's possible. But this island is far from standing alone. The 10 most populous countries are split 5-5 between lefties and righties and though the right does win overall in terms of population, by about two to one, I would argue that history and common sense is with the left here.

Even Conrad H. McGregor, a campaigner for global standardisation, seems soft on leftism and accepts its logic. Driving along dangerous pre-industrial roads, it made sense for right-handed horsemen to keep to the left so they could draw their sword in the event of a suspicious encounter. Furthermore, riders normally mount from the left.

This began to get a little fuzzy in the late 18th century when farmers began to use teams of animals to pull their carts and sat on the left rear horse, the better to lash the others. This led them to incline to the right-hand side of the road.

But the turning point was the French Revolution. In France, the left of the road was associated with the aristocracy who bowled along in their carriages splashing mud on the peasants trudging, heads bowed, on the right. As Napoleon conquered Europe, he ordered everyone to keep right as an empty post-revolutionary gesture. The newly independent United States, out of anti-British malevolence, followed suit.

Thus the great rightist power bloc was born and it now covers continental Europe (even Gibraltar) and the entire American landmass (with the tiny exceptions of Suriname and Guyana).

The British, however, did go on to conquer more of the world than anyone else. So leftism, far from fading out, spread to the ends of the earth, and hence three of its bastions in the population top ten: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. (Those familiar with the subcontinent might think it's more common to drive in the middle.)

Much more surprisingly, the leftists can also claim Indonesia - where Dutch settlement predated Napoleon's takeover at home - Japan, where the British helped build the railways and reinforced the old rule-of-the-road and (outside the top ten) Thailand. On the other hand, Nigeria, in common with other ex-British colonies in West Africa, is rightist.

The history of all this is far more complex than one might imagine. Canada, as usual, opted for American influence rather than British in the end but the west coast held out until the 1920s. That was a time of retreat for leftist driving generally. Portugal switched sides then; Italy, having been perhaps characteristically confused, was whipped into line by Mussolini; Madrid (though not Barcelona) was leftist until 1924.

China (which gives the right its global majority) only switched in 1946. Pakistan considered going the same way in the 1960s, presumably to differentiate itself from India. According to McGregor, the plan was rejected because camel trains often continued through the night while their drivers snoozed. Camels are always resistant to change.

Humans, however, are more easily bullied. And the final impetus for the switch in Europe came from Hitler. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which Napoleon failed to conquer, stayed on the left until Hitler marched in. In 1938, he ordered the traffic in Vienna to change overnight, even though that meant drivers couldn't see the road signs, and the trams had to stay on the left for weeks. Czechoslovakia and Hungary also tended to the left - in more ways than one - until the Nazis marched in.

The example cited by British defeatists is Sweden, which remained on the left (even though its cars were all left-hand drive) until 1967. It veered right even though an earlier referendum had produced an 83 per cent vote for staying left.

So there you have it. Right-hand driving is the creation of Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler and anti-democratic forces of all kinds. Brits should say it loud: I'm a linksrijer and I'm proud.

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Blogger Fat Lad said...

Hell yeah, proud to be left. In more than my driving too

Fat Lad

1/8/07 14:39  
Blogger Matt said...

I think Norway only went in 1971. My recollection is that they did it over a weekend and went out and changed signs and restriped roads like crazy for a few days.

3/8/07 16:15  

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