Friday, November 30, 2007

Driving on the wrong side - settled at last

Driving on the Right side
As an American, I have long been of the opinion that we drive on the correct (right-hand) side of the road and that the Brits and their influences have it wrong. Up to now, my opinion has mainly been based on obscure tenets of maritime law, but I have discovered a far better and more important reason, which I will detail below. But first some history, etc. You would expect no less from a geek.

U.S. "Wrongies"
My personal history with this phenomenon comes from having visited England and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Because the virgin islands were once mainly British territory, they drive on the incorrect side of the road, even on the islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John, which are now U.S. territories. The most befuddling aspect of this is that the most plentiful cars by far are those made in the U.S.A., because they are cheaper to ship to the islands, and many people who live there are poor and so end up with the lowest-cost option. So, on a recent trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, I found myself hurtling down the single-lane roads keeping to the left, but sitting in the left-hand driver seat as far as possible from the parts of the cars which are nearest each other. This might sound safe, but it really isn't because it's really hard to see the line in the middle of the road.

World Driving History
The phenomenon of standard driving sides far predates cars. Originally, it was the swordsmen gentlemen of England who decided to ride horses on the left, so that their scabbards wouldn't clank together and so that their strong right arm could pull the sword out and oppose enemies riding at them on the same road. Why they thought their enemies would be so orderly is partly explained by the way they fought wars back then. Anyway, Europe under Napoleon decided they wanted to ride on the left side of wagons so they could whip the team with their right hand, and for similar reasons described above, wanted to pass on the right. Britain whipped Napoleon, so his driving habits never spread there, and neither did Hitler's.

Maritime Law
This is all well and good, but long before Napoleon and long before other driving habits were established stateside, England herself had already decided the question in the 1100's. Admiralty law, also known as Maritime Law, has always called for seagoing vessels to pass one another on the right. And no one had more stake in creating Admiralty Law than the British. Now, the British can claim one side or the other all they like, but as long as they are not consistent, I don't see any point in following them at all. Of course, to most people, this is a kind of esoteric argument and doesn't hold much water, so to speak. Why should we listen to the British at all, maritime or otherwise? This is America, damn it, and we won our independence from the crown hundreds of years ago (in fact that is around the time that it was settled once and for all that Americans would pass on the right). It is only by a stroke of luck that we and Napoleon got it right. We were also on more or less the same side in the war, so what the heck, we're also on the same side of the road. Besides, we invented the car, so we get to choose. Or at least we invented the assembly line to make enough of them that it mattered which side you drove on.

But... But... I don't drive
The real reason you should drive on the right is far more practical, and affects you every day, even if you don't drive at all. Namely, when a people drive on a certain side of the road, they tend to pass one another on walkways on that same side. This makes sense, because it is useful to have a side to pass on, after all. In England, they would take this back to the "orderly enemies" argument above, and say that in walking we should keep our weapon hands on the side of the "enemy" on the other side of the road. Well, if your a warmonger that is all well and good, but most of us just walk up a couple of flights of stairs every day and go to work, not to war. And that is where we need our right hand, to hold onto the railing, whether we are ascending or descending, and thus the practical reason to drive on the right.

For the record, I'm left-handed.

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