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A History of the World in a Dozen Objects: Number 5 - The Steering Wheel

  • Posted May 21, 2011 by Jon Laysell Viewed 4204 times

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There is a scene in Fawlty Towers where an irate American tourist arrives at the hotel complaining at the narrowness of England's motorways. ??Well,? retorts Basil (John Cleese) ??a lot of the English cars have steering wheels?. The steering wheel; it's not just a good opportunity for a cheap joke, but it symbolises an international issue in motoring: Which side of the road to drive on.

You probably can't tell from the picture but this is and English steering wheel (English by adoption anyway. It was probably born in Genk, Belgium) so it is set into the right hand side of the dashboard, for driving on the left. Internationally this makes it in somewhat of a minority as 2/3rds of the planet drive on the right and have steering wheels on the left. With the exceptions of The UK, India, southern Africa, Australasia, and much of the Carribean there aren't many places where they drive on the left.

This hasn't always been the case though. Historically most of the world drove ?? or rather rode - on the left. If you were a horseman you'd probably wear a sword on your left (most people being right handed). This meant that it would be easier to dismount on the left, and consequently to ride on the left. Archaeological studies of old Roman roads suggest they they rode on the left. Later records suggest that most people did.

The first legal record regarding which side of the road to drive is an order from 1756 stating that all traffic crossing London Bridge must use the left hand side. As it is presently sited in Arizona, presumably any traffic these days must pass on the right. It is not just London Bridge that has changed most of the World has. The driving force behind this appears to be Emperor Napoleon who decreed that in France (and it's many annexes) traffic should be on the right. It has been claimed that this was because he hated the British or because he was left handed, but it may be due to more practical matters concerning the driving of carriages in the Napoleonic wars. Whatever the reason Driving on the right became the dominant way internationally.

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    There are 7 comments, add yours!

    • # Gregg Maretka

      Yes here we drive on the right as i'm sure you are so aware of....my friend just returned from a trip to The Cayman Islands where he rented a car with the steering wheel on the right..i had to drive on the left...ok get on with it Gregg...he returned the car within fifteen minutes and several close calls...taxi time for the rest of the trip !!

      2011.05.28 Edited Reply Cancel

    • # Eiram

      In Czechoslovakia we also drove on the left - until the occupation of our country by the Nazis - they changed the rules literaly over night.

      2011.05.24 Edited Reply Cancel

    • # Helen

      You forgot to mention the quartic steering wheel on the Austin Allegro - a square one!

      2011.05.23 Edited Reply Cancel

    • # Michael Sakowicz

      I usually like driving directly in the middle of the road. For some reason, other motorists don't seem to like it as much...

      2011.05.21 Edited Reply Cancel

    • # Gerd Korts

      what shall I say, once I drove around Guernsey and came back without left mirror. So the roads in left driving countries are really not wide enough

      2011.05.21 Edited Reply Cancel