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Why You Need To Keep Left

… Because you’ll be killed in a head-on smash, that’s why.

OK, let’s clarify a few things here.  Obviously, all of us need to drive on the road so that we don’t bump into other drivers.  When Car A is travelling north at 65 km/h on a road and Car B is travelling southwards at 85 km/h and the road is – whoops, channelled the old-fashioned maths books there for a moment – anyway, how do they keep from bumping into one another? Very simply, in Australia, we have agreed to keep to the left.

So why the left?  Why not the right?  In Australia, we can put this down to our colonial heritage.  We were colonised by the UK, which is why you’re reading this in English, so all that happened is that they imported their road rules along with the roads.

OK, so why do the Brits drive on the left-hand side of the road?

As a matter of fact, it wasn’t just the Brits who drove on the left-hand side of the road back in the horse and carriage days.  According to one source, everybody used to drive on the left once upon a time.  The reasons for this went back to the Romans (like the standard gauge on railway tracks) and possibly even earlier than this.  This is because of two facts about human beings: (1) the majority are right-handed and (2) we have belligerent tendencies.  Anyone approaching you head-on could be an enemy or at least a potential jerk who doesn’t know how to drive his/her oxcart properly, and you might need to defend yourself and/or teach the jerk a lesson.  Road rage is nothing new. In fact, it pre-dates roads, as one Egyptian tomb painting illustrates: it shows two boatmen having a punch up (with one spouting hieroglyphics that were translated as “Take that, you f***er!”) after having rammed each other on the Nile.  Anyway, if you’re right-handed and want to have your sword hand on the side nearest the potential oncoming enemy, you kept left.  This applied even to foot traffic – and was made official law for tourists pilgrims according to a Papal Edict in the 1300s.

If you’ve ever seen jousting in one of those historical re-enactment displays, you’ll see the origins of the “keep left” principle in action.  If you’re a knight, you keep your lance tucked firmly under yourright arm and then keep left in the lists so the lance hits the other guy, not your own horse’s head. It’s common sense.

We also mount horses and bikes from the left so our right hands do the balancing or take our weight (or hang onto the saddle in case the horse decides to take off while you’re halfway through the proceedings).  To make things easy getting on and off, you want to do this from the kerb, so you keep on the side nearest the kerb.  Even today, look at the tilt on the kickstand on a modern motorbike: it leans left so that the majority of bikers can get on and off comfortably (question: are there left-handed motorbikes that lean the other way?  Must ask my left-handed biker brother-in-law.)

So why on earth did people start to keep right in some parts of the world?   The person to blame is supposedly Napoleon.  According to some accounts, he may have been left-handed, so he insisted on doing things the left-handed way.  Alternatively, it may have just been the tendency of nutty dictators to make their armies walk in a funny way just because (think of Nazi Germany or North Korea).  A more boring theory puts it down to the habit of driving large teams of horses which meant that the driver had to sit on the left with the whip in his left hand (though don’t ask me why this was necessary).  And, thanks to the French Revolution, nuts to any Papal Edicts that had been knocking around since the Middle Ages!

Drive on zat side of ze road!

Anyway, the habit of driving on the right started in France and spread, along with French manners and Napoleon’s empire, around large chunks of Europe.  It also became the habit in the US, partly because one of the generals in the War of Independence was French (General Lafayette) and partly because they didn’t want to do things like the Brits did, and the Brits had defiantly refused to change the good old-fashioned habit just because Napoleon had said to. I say, old chap, we won’t do that!

As an aside, the French and the Americans deciding to do things the opposite of the Brits, whom they hated, was also responsible for the “pink for girls, blue for boys” thing.  Posh Brits wanting to dress their offspring in gender-distinct colours picked pink for boys, as this was considered a strong, bold colour that was a baby version of military red; blue was already associated with the Virgin Mary and was considered softer, gentler and more soothing.  The French, however, had their soldiers in blue uniforms and, sacré bleu, were going to reflect this in their baby clothes; thanks to the Revolution when they all officially became athiests/agnostics, who cares about Mary? The Yanks also hated the Redcoats, so they ditched pink for boys as well.

Anyway, I digress.  The French and the Americans decided to do things their way and introduce keeping right.  Those sharing a continent with them often ended up following suit and because they’d spent time under Napoleon’s possibly left thumb.  As the use of the motorcar spread, those sharing continents with them also made the shift from left to right to avoid cross-border carnage and also because they wanted posh American cars.

However, those of us with our own motoring industries in countries where the border is the beach kept to the old traditions, mostly because we don’t have the cross-border muddles and we produced our own posh cars, thank you.  The UK, Australia, New Zealand and Japan all drive on the left. So does India, probably because of the lengthy period of British colonialization.  Around one-third of the world still keeps left.

However, according to some road safety experts, keeping left versus keeping right isn’t as inconsequential and trivial as, say, the colours you use to show whether Bubs is a boy or a girl. The majority of the population is still right-handed and right-eyed, so it makes sense to have your dominant hand on the wheel actually controlling the direction of the car while the non-dominant hand moves the gears, and to have your dominant eye getting the best view of the traffic.

There has actually been a study, carried out in the late 1960s by a chap called J.J Leeming (who was a Brit – which may have biased his results), which suggests that when you take all other factors into account, the road accident rate is slightly higher in countries that drive on the right compared with those that drive on the left, thanks to the handedness factor. I have attempted to find out whether these results, originally published in a wee book called Road Accidents: Prevent or Punish? have been verified, but Google Scholar doesn’t seem to reveal any that directly compare accident rates in left-side countries versus right-side countries controlling for other factors.  Any civil engineering grad students out there looking for a good thesis topic who want to do this?

And there you have it: keeping left is possibly the oldest road safety rule known to humanity.  Keeping left isn’t fighting the natural preferences of the majority (sorry, lefties!).  So make sure you do it!

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