From Napoleon to Henry Ford: Why do they drive on the left in Britain?

While in Europe Napoleon Bonaparte played a key role in this regard, in the US the "credit" is usually attributed to Henry Ford

by Sededin Dedovic
From Napoleon to Henry Ford: Why do they drive on the left in Britain?
© Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

The United Kingdom is one of the 30% of countries where driving is on the left side of the road, unlike most of the planet which adheres to driving on the right. While Napoleon Bonaparte played a significant role in shaping this norm in Europe, attributions in the United States often point to Henry Ford.

However, according to CNN, the story predates the invention of the automobile. A CNN reporter searched for answers in Conestoga, Pennsylvania, in a former tobacco barn, examining the wagons of his host, an Amish farmer. The Steman family cultivated the land in that area since 1743.

These large wagons, with tall, arched canvas covers, symbolize America's westward expansion, as settlers used them to transport their belongings. With the help of these wagons, the country was raised and the foundations for the USA as we know it today were established.

, A wagon train bearing goods to the new settlements makes its way westwards, before the implementation of railroads. A woman wa© Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Conestoga wagons were developed by local carpenters and blacksmiths, adapted to carry agricultural products and goods traded with Native Americans.

Philadelphia was one of the largest cities in the British colonies at the time. The driver could either ride one of the horses or sit on a "bench" jutting out from the side of the wagon. However, for more active control, they would walk alongside the horses, manipulating levers and ropes.

Since right-handed people are more common around the world, Conestoga wagons had controls on the left side, closer to the driver's right hand. This arrangement positioned the driver closer to the middle of the road, and the trailer on the right side.
Eventually, trade and traffic between Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia flourished, leading to the creation of America's first major highway.

This historical fact proved to be very important for the further development of traffic regulation.

Henry Ford and the steering wheel position

In 1804, New York became the first state to enforce right-hand driving on all roads and highways.

Some attribute the standardization of American traffic to Henry Ford, because in 1908 Ford Motor Co. placed the steering wheel on the left side of the very popular Model T. However, Ford was merely responding to driving habits established long before.

This was even confirmed by the company because they have access to the company's historical documents. It's really unusual that most of Europe, except Britain, drives on the right, like Americans. But there is another explanation for that.

The French revolutionary government under Maximilien Robespierre, a man who inspired fear and trembling during the second part of the 18th century. The man who is responsible for the guillotining of thousands of people ordered everyone to drive on the right side and announced terrible penalties for those who did not.

The left side of the road, by long cultural convention, was reserved for carriages and horsemen. In other words, richer layers. Pedestrians, or those less affluent, would stay on the right. Forcing everyone on the same side of the road not only improved the flow of traffic but also removed class distinctions.

The middle and lower classes quickly liked this way, and even the richest had nothing against it. The upper classes probably accepted it because at the time it was dangerous to pose as an aristocrat. Historian M.G. Leigh, the author of the mentioned book "Roads of the World", believes that the difference arose from the types of transport used.

Britain simply wanted to go a different way than at that time the great enemy of the French.

The Palace of Westminster and Big Ben seen from Parliament Square, London, circa 1897© London Stereoscopic Company / Getty Images

Britain had fewer industrial wagons and more small wagons and individual drivers.

Riders preferred to stay on the left side to exchange salutes with the right hand and, if necessary, draw weapons. It is necessary to put ourselves in the spirit of that time in order to better understand this and to understand who and how developed the traffic we use today.

But there is one nation that was neither a subject nor an ally of Napoleon. That would be Sweden. Sweden used to drive on the left until one surprisingly peaceful day in 1967 when drivers there started driving on the right. It was a major undertaking that required careful planning and coordination.

In preparation for the change, the government undertook a series of educational campaigns to inform the public about the change and encourage them to adapt. Changes have also been made to the traffic infrastructure, such as changing the direction of traffic signs and remodeling intersections.

One of the main reasons was that most European countries drove in the right lane. This made it difficult for Swedes to travel to other European countries. Another reason was that the right lane is more efficient for traffic. This is because most people are right-handed and find it easier to drive and change lanes in the right lane.