Why Do the British Drive on the Left? (A History Review)

The United Kingdom is one of the few countries to drive on the left side of the road. We look into the history of the driving law to find out more.

Aug 13, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

why do british drivers drive on the left


The majority of today’s nations today drive on the right side of the road, following the rules of right-hand traffic, or RHT, including the United States, Canada, Russia, and much of Europe. But around one-third of the world’s countries buck the trend with left-hand traffic rules, or LHT. The United Kingdom is one of these nations. In fact, the UK has a long history of following LHT that dates way back into British history, perhaps even as far as the ancient Romans. But why do the British drive on the left, rather than following the widespread trend for the opposite? Read on to find out more.


Roman Custom

Emperor Otho on Horseback
Emperor Otho on Horseback, from ‘The First Twelve Roman Caesars’, Anotonio Tempesta, 1596, Met Museum


One of the most widely circulated theories about why the British drive on the left dates back to ancient Roman times. Back then, travelers riding on horseback faced the constant threat of invasion or mugging. Because the majority of Roman people were right-handed, riding horses on the left meant their right, dominant hand could be ready to draw out a sword in the event of an unexpected rival riding towards them. History suggests Roman soldiers kept up the tradition in larger groups by always marching to the left, and Romans even drove carts and wagons on the left. The practice was passed on by subsequent civilizations through the ages.


salt lake wagon train
The Salt Lake Cutoff, Charles Carter photo, via True West Magazine


Driving on the left was widespread around much of the Roman Empire for centuries. However, in 1792, the first keep to the right law was passed in Pennsylvania in 1792, and many states across the US and Canada followed suite. In France, meanwhile, Napoleon enforced the right hand driving rule across all French territories, which continue to drive on the right today.


It Was Written into British Law

Portrait of Pope Boniface VIII who first recorded official British driving rules
Portrait of Pope Boniface VIII, who first recorded official British driving rules

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The first officially sanctioned rule for driving on the left was enshrined by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300 CE, when he declared that all traveling pilgrims visiting the Roman Empire must remain on the left. In 1773, as British roads became more developed and congested, the government brought in the General Highways Act, which stated that all horse riders, farmers, coachmen and lawless highwaymen must remain on the left side to avoid any nasty collisions, even before cars had been invented. Just over a century later, the 1883 Highway Act wrote British driving rules into law, making it a crime for anyone caught driving on the wrong side. 


British Cars Were Designed with Drivers on the Right

The interior of a classic British car showing the driver’s seat on the right side
The interior of a classic British car showing the driver’s seat on the right side


One of the trickiest aspects of adopting different driving rules from one country to the next is adjusting to driving on the other side of the car. British cars were, and are, designed with the driver’s seat to the right, so that the driver riding on the left side of the road can see the traffic coming ahead in the opposite direction. This is often referred to as right-hand driving (not to be confused with right-hand traffic). By contrast, right-driving nations sit on the left side, thereby partaking in left-hand driving.


The Tradition Has Stuck in Britain and Ireland

The United Kingdom as seen from the air
The United Kingdom and Ireland as seen from the air


One of the reasons why British people still drive on the left is because they are an island nation, with no neighboring right-hand traffic countries. Ireland also follows left-hand driving rules. By contrast, various countries who are neighbors to right-hand traffic nations have adopted their rules to make traveling from one country to the next easier. Several of the other left-hand driving nations are also islands, including Australia, Japan and Malta.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.