The world can be divided into two camps: left-hand-side-of-the-road-drivers, and right-hand-side-of-the-road-drivers. Now, the former are mostly comprised of citizens in the United Kingdom and its former colonies—Australia, India, South Africa, etc.—whose driving habits were set in stone by the Highway Act of 1835. (Supposedly, experts say, because horse-drawn traffic had forever skewed leftward.)
But what explains the reason why Americans decided to drive on the other side of the road?
According to the folks at the Federal Highway Administration, the practice of traveling on the right of the road dates back to horse-and-buggy days of colonial America. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people primarily traveled by wagon. And, due to the design of Conestoga wagons—the most popular model at the time—drivers usually sat to the left: The break lever on Conestogas was on the left-hand side of the vehicle.
What’s more, according to Albert Rose, the FHA’s longtime “unofficial historian,” carriage drivers “traveled to the right so as to watch more closely the clearance at the left.” In other words, a left-sided driver could easier see the opposing side of the road while driving—or rather, galloping—on the right. And, per Rose, this practice has a bloody background.
Roses notes that it was common practice at the time for such travelers to be carrying weapons holstered to their left hip. As a result, it was easier to use one’s right hand to whip out said weapon to face a potentially hostile traveler down the road.
The practice of right-hand driving became so second-nature that, in 1792, Pennsylvania passed a law designating that all traffic be on the right-hand side. In 1804, New York followed suit. And by the time the Civil War was underway, every state in the nation was giddy-upping their carriages on the right.
When automobiles came around, at the turn of the 20th century, everyone stuck to tradition and kept driving on the right. Now, every state—and federal laws, as applicable to interstate highways—has a law on the books specifically designating that all vehicles, not just horse-drawn ones, stay on the right side of the road. (Pennsylvania didn’t pass their updated version until 1976.)
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