Did You Know?

Did You Know? It’s not by chance that most of the world drives on the right side of the road. You can thank one of history’s most famous military conquerors for right-hand drive.

Few individuals in history have had such a massive impact on the world as the French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte. From military strategy and the modern political map to the spread of Enlightenment ideals around the globe, Napoléon shaped the world through his successes as well as his failures. The predominance of a right-hand drive is just one example.

In America and much of Europe, we drive on the right side of the road, while England and a few other nations drive on the left. In the ancient world, horsemen would usually pass on the left side. Since most people are right-handed, it made sense to pass strangers on the same side as your sword arm.

But when Napoléon swept across Europe with his Grande Armée, he instituted a right-side rule everywhere he conquered. Why? Some claim that he was left-handed, and this gave him a personal advantage. But right-hand passing was already the standard in France and the American colonies when Napoléon came to power.

In the late 1700s, new kinds of heavy wagons were developed. Due to their size and weight, they needed to be pulled by teams of horses. Because of right-handed predominance, teamsters would sit on the rear left horse so they could control all the reins with their good hand. This necessitated passing on the right to safety.

Napoléon assembled the largest military force that Europe had seen in centuries, and efficient transportation was vitally important – as was the institution of uniform traffic laws. Countries that resisted French conquest, like England, kept passing on the left. As the European nations established colonies around the world, they imposed their road rules wherever they went.

So India and much of East Africa, which were under the control of the British Empire, drove on the left. Many of these countries gradually reverted to right-side driving, mostly for convenient trade with other right-sided nations. Today, only about 35 percent of the world drives on the left.

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