February 17, 2007Aside

Sunday Levity: Driving on the right side

Military requirements, revolutionary compulsions, inscrutable Americans, colonial hangovers and constraints in camel retraining programmes gave us this imperfect world

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Sadagopan, who normally blogs about emerging technologies, thoughts, ideas, trends and cyberworld, surprises his readers with a post on something altogether different — on why some people drive on the left side of the road, and others on the wrong.

He’s right, though. The story usually offered was that modern traffic rules were handed down from the days when people used to travel on horseback. Since they also used swords and lances in those days, it made sense to ride on the left side of the road while brandishing the weapon using the right hand. They must have had bloody roads in those days. And southpaws who rail against discrimination should know how much they are better off now compared to those days. A big guess here, but given that a left-handed swordsman on horseback would do something between pruning the roadside trees and slicing off the ear of the poor sod on his left, it is unlikely that cavalry captains would want a leftie on the team.

The English, in their typical way, were reluctant to get rid of antiquated institutions. French noblemen used to ride on the left too (they got into sword fights with the British, didn’t they?). Commoners—who didn’t fight or didn’t do it on horses—were assigned the right side. That’s all very well, but didn’t anyone think about traffic in the opposite direction? In any case, it took the revolution to change the order of things on the road. After the revolution, the nobles—owing to their having a good head on their shoulder—threw in their lot with the commoners and began driving on the right. America’s decision to depart from the British practice is inexplicable. Pennsylvania enacted a keep-right law in 1792 and the rest is history.

Like anglicised place names and the English language itself, India’s keep-left traffic rule should rankle in the minds of modern day righters of colonial wrongs. Once they are done with renaming cities and arguing (in English) over whether or not English medium primary schools should be abolished, they could focus on ridding the country of the rule of the road. Look at the traffic in any major Indian city, and you’ll see that people are already taking the initiative to change this oppressive relic of the Raj on their own.

Pakistan, it turns out, wanted to switch over to the American side of the road in the 1960s. (That would set Pakistanis apart from those Indians anyway, doing wonders for purposes of forging a national identity of their own)

The main argument against the shift was that camel trains often drove through the night while their drivers dozed. The difficulty in teaching old camels new tricks was decisive in forcing Pakistan to reject the change. [Mick Hamer]

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