Last month while visiting the UK, my husband and I rented a Peugeot 308, and did some exploring of the English countryside. This meant I once again got the chance to tackle driving on the left side of the road. If you haven’t had this experience before, let me tell you, it’s pretty strange. You wouldn’t think at first that it would feel so different, but it certainly does. My husband is from Australia so he’s used to this weird set up. After a few minutes back on the right side of the car, he was set. I, however, took some time to adjust.
I’m typically what some would call an aggressive driver. I make quick decisions, am confident in my driving ability, and also tend to have a lead foot. That all goes out the window when switching sides. I feel like I’m an eight year old trying to drive my grandfather’s truck on the farm again. Not only is it a constant challenge to know which direction to yield or which way to look, the instruments are also reversed, which means you flick the turn signal and your windshield wipers start going.
After about 20 minutes behind the wheel, I do start to get a bit of my confidence back. I try to follow the car directly in front of me and hug the right side of my lane to keep from drifting left, which is what inevitably happens to us Yanks. What really challenges me though are the roundabouts. My husband thinks they’re the best, because they are the intersection method of choice in Australia, and he’s used to them. I find them to be terrifying death traps. People fly around them entering and exiting at perilous speeds. Add in the fact that you’re giving way to the right instead of the left, and they become my personal hell. I’m fairly confident I lost at least 5 years of my life at the roundabouts in England.
Then there’s the speed at which people drive once you leave the city and get out into the country. At one point I was doing a solid 90 mph (MILES, not kilometers mind you) and people were running me off the road. Literally. In England, the fast lane is truly the fast lane. If you’re not going with the flow of traffic, you’d best be getting over to the left. However, that was annoying for me because once you change lanes to the left, the speed dramatically decreases. People go from doing 100 mph to 60 mph, which even for my cautious driving was too slow. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium.
All of this driving left me with one burning question. Why did the Brits decide to go against the grain and drive on the wrong side of the road? Pretty much everywhere else in the world drives on the right. Why be different? I did some research on this topic and what I found out surprised me. It turns out the Brits didn’t go against the grain, everyone else did. When roads first popped up, people were encouraged to stay to the left in two-way traffic situations. This was due to the fact that back in the day, the likelihood of getting robbed or killed while out on the road was high. Since most people are right-handed, this meant they could easily whip out their sword and defend themselves against attackers on the opposite side of the road. This gives road rage a whole new meaning in my opinion. So where did the change occur? With the French of course. Pre-revolutionary France kept to the left side of the road. However, after the revolution, as a form of protest, they moved all transportation to the right. Some say this was because Napolean was left-handed. Soon after, the rest of Europe followed suit.
What happened here in the States? Since America was colonized by both British and French, the road systems were split. However, in the late 1700’s, with freight wagons gaining popularity, America finally went all in on the right side of the road. This was due to the fact that it was much easier to control the horses from the left rather than on the right. Thus, our fate was sealed.
I did read in my research that driving on the right side of the car is the safer way to go. As stated above, most people are right handed which means driving with your left hand on the left side of the car should be awkward, so I guess the joke is on us. We are actually on the wrong side of the road.
Overall there are a lot of things the Brits get right with their behind the wheel system. The traffic lights turn yellow before turning green, which makes it easier to honk at people on their cell phones who are oblivious to the fresh green. People actually adhere to the rules of the fast lane and move out of the way if they want to go slowly. LA drivers could definitely learn something there. But there is one thing they have in common with the rest of us. Once you get anywhere near the city, traffic grinds to a halt.