Why the world is not on Britain’s side

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John explores one of the most enduring questions of all Englishmen abroad. Why do foreigners drive on the wrong side of the road?

Why do foreigners drive on the wrong side of the road? This question baffles every Englishman abroad. The French, Chinese and Americans, who insist on driving on the right, greatly outnumber the British, Indian and Japanese who know that you should drive on the left.

Some explanations are intriguing, but wrong. Take, for example, the claim that American and French revolutionaries switched to the right to snub George III and the Pope and demonstrate the triumph of democratic rationality over established order. But the French stuck to the right even before the fall of the Bastille and the rule of the road was not an issue in the American War of Independence.

There are romantic but implausible myths: English knights and Japanese samurai, mostly right-handed, kept to the left to facilitate drawing their swords on the approaching enemy. The Arthurian tradition may still influence English life – but not that much. More banal accounts are perhaps better founded; the design of carriages made different habits more appropriate in different parts of the world.

This search for explanation misses the central point. The rule of the road is an extreme example of a compatibility standard. It does not matter what we do so long as we all do the same thing – there need be no underlying explanation. Chance events have extensive consequences. That gives us the famous metaphor of the butterfly whose flapping wings set off a tornado thousands of miles away. But we learn little by tracking down the guilty butterfly. Our objective should be to understand the process of development, not to identify the chance event that created it.

The rule of the road has evolved under the influence of two factors which determine not only how we drive but much of the world in which we live. The rule is the product of cultural and economic imperialism, mediated by the spread of habits among geographically contiguous populations.

Most leftist countries, other than Japan, are former British colonies. And British railway engineers took leftism on to the tracks around the world. Although their trains may be different, most former French colonies drive on the right. Korea moved to the right when the Japanese were expelled. The German and Argentine invaders of the Channel and Falkland Islands switched these territories to the right and the islanders celebrated their liberation by switching back. Leftism waxed and waned with the British empire.

Where competing standards are juxtaposed, the larger and more powerful area tends to win out. Canadians drove on the left in British Columbia and in the traditionally English maritime provinces: but in the centre of the country, where French and American influence was greater, the rule was to stay to the right. The construction of trans-Canadian highways made this untenable and in the 1920s Canada standardised – on the right.

In Europe, the right – long the practice of France and Spain – eventually became universal. Sweden was the last continental European country to fall in line, in 1967. Almost all the countries that have switched since the end of the First World War – about thirty in all – have moved to the right. But as road networks become more complex and street furniture more extensive, the costs of changeover have increased. Britain and Japan are likely to remain leftist islands in a rightist world.

But what of the US? Why did the most successful of Britain’s former colonies not follow its colonial master? Settlement and independence came too early for British influence to be decisive.

There was not enough transport before 1750 for the rule of the road to have much significance. But in countries going through the industrial revolution there was sufficient traffic by 1850 for a rule to be necessary. The US was free to go its own way in that critical hundred years – and did.

The wings of the butterfly flap first one way, then another. General James Wolfe took Quebec, and in consequence North America speaks English, not French. The French lost the language war. But most of the world drives on the right, as on the Champs Elysée.

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