Right is Just Wrong…

One of the delights of working in a friendly, relaxed, academic environment is that there is often plenty of time to ruminate on, and debate, random subjects without some pesky deadline interfering..(well, actually, pesky deadlines do exist, but we don’t let them get in the way of a good rumination)
So it was with some enjoyment that I embarked on just such random rumination with my German colleague, Bernard, Bavarian farmer and very clever man on all matters to do with agronomics and precision agriculture (but who has never heard of the Black Eyed Peas..shocking admission for a crop farmer!)
As well adjusted Brits and Germans are wont to do, we’ve already covered the usual topics over recent months: 2 world wars, one world cup etc.  But Bernard’s latest provocation revolves around why the Brits still insist on driving on the left hand side when 2/3rds of the world has moved to the right.
Following a lively but inconclusive discussion in the office, and with a large crate of German beer and a bottle of Scotch at stake (wagered in the presence of bemused Tico witnesses) I decided to do a bit of homework. Firstly, the question is over simplistic and needs re-casting.  And the evidence on both sides of the road needs examining.
So here’s where I got to:
‘Rationale’ for why so many countries drive on the right? The Facts:  combination of the mad egotistical ravings of a French despot, the later, equally mad ravings of a German despot, and a bit of irrational post-colonial spite…
1.  Napoleon was left-handed, which meant he drew his sword from the right. He insisted that his army – and all the countries he subsequently invaded (including Germany)- march on the right so that he could keep his sword arm
between him and the advancing army.
2. Hitler later insisted when he invaded the rest of Europe, that countries drive on the right, like him. A violently Rightist despot imposing once more, a violently rightist driving habit.
3. Post-colonial times – to distance themselves from their former British colonial masters, former colonies in Africa, the US and others switched to the right hand side by way of saying ‘two fingers up’ to the Brits. Hardly a decision
based on reason and logic, methinks.
4. Henry Ford (see item 3). The largest car manufacturer and exporter in the world, and former colony, the US designed cars for right hand driving. This drove countries who had been perfectly happy with driving on the left, to the right. A practical reason maybe, but hardly one based on cast-iron logic.
5. ‘Because the neighbours do it’: poor old Sweden was forced to switch to the Right because most of its neighbours were already driving on the right (see reasons 1-4). It was put to the public vote and the Swedes voted overwhelmingly against the Right… nonetheless, their government wanted to keep neighbours happy and boost cross border trade, so they ignored the public and switched regardless. Hardly a thoughtful, democratic reason, and very un-Swedish I thought.

Rationale for driving on the left: key facts: combination of common sense, road safety and human biology. Rooted, therefore, in scientific reason and logic.
1. Most people in the world are right handed. As I had suggested in the office earlier, in violent feudal societies of the past (i.e. most of the world until the 20th century) it made sense to carry any weapon in this hand. When passing a stranger on the road, it would be safer to walk or ride on the left, so ensuring that your weapon was between yourself and a possible opponent.
2. In a pre-car world, it made much more sense to dismount from your horse, or your bicycle, on the left, closest to the roadside, rather than on the right, where, owing to prevailing global right-handedness, you would be dismounting into the middle of the road. Safer, and more practical, therefore.
3. Some of the greatest empires rode on the left: the Romans, the Mongols and the Austro-Hungarians to mention just a few. There was even a Papal edict that re-enforced this in 1300 AD. (But let’s not bring religion into it)
4. Research conducted in 1969 by a clever nerdy person interested in the subject showed countries driving on the left have a lower collision rate than countries driving on the right. Reasons cited were that the right human eye is the stronger one, and therefore better at both judging and anticipating oncoming traffic.
5. As if reasons 1-4 were not enough, the Brits believe that driving on the right hand side is just one more example of bland, global homogenisation that makes the world a far less interesting place.
So, what do you think? I think 2 World Wars, one World Cup, one crate of German Beer and a bottle of Scotch…


Quality product from an island nation


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Rachel C on August 1, 2011 at 1:24 am

    Marvellous. You clearly don’t have enough proper work to do! Oh for that day …

    And to digress a little further, did you know that the reason we mount horses on the left is also because most people were/are right handed, and carried their sword on their left side, in bygone times. They therefore had to put their left hip against the horse, to keep their sword in place, as they mounted. If they mounted from the right, as you can picture, their sword would awkwardly flail about and possibly spook the horse.


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