Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why do we drive on the right?

If you wanted to drive on the left side of the road, could you? You could try, but it's against the law! 

Image by Roland Tanglao, 2/5/10, Vancouver, BC
Creative Commons Use. 

Legend has it that the American custom of right-handed driving began in an effort to cast off the customs of the old world and British rule. Left-handed driving in Britain apparently made sense in the horse and buggy days, when right-handed riders hoped to keep their strong side ready for sword fights with passersby.

Albert C. Rose, "unofficial historian" of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 to 1950, provides a more practical explanation: right-handed driving was the most convenient way to travel in a Conestoga Wagon. He notes the first codification of right-handed driving occurred in 1792, when Pennsylvania lawmakers passed legislation establishing a turnpike from Lancaster to Philadelphia. By the Civil War, drivers in every state drove on the right.

In the early 20th century, cars became more common. With a growing number of drivers terrorizing the roadways, states began to codify traffic rules in Motor Vehicle Acts. The "Father of Traffic Safety," William P. Eno, published Rules of the Road in 1903, which informed many local traffic codes.

Some countries, like troublemaker Canada, had messier colonial pasts resulting in formerly French parts of the country driving on the right and British parts driving on the left. To keep confusion to a minimum across the globe, and I'm not even kidding about this, 95 countries ratified an international treaty on road traffic in 1949. The Geneva Convention on Road Traffic signatories agreed that traffic would uniformly keep to one side of the road--the same side of the road--in each country.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, which gave the federal government purview over drivers and driving for the first time. Previously, it had been up to states and local governments to regulate the rules of the road.

Today, traffic codes such as Section 21651(b) of the California Vehicle Code make it a crime to drive on the left side of a divided highway. It can cost you two points on your license!

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