On 5th March 1946, Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister who led the British through the World War II, made a historical speech in London.
A few months earlier, he had just lost the election to Clement Atlee of the Labour Party. As opposition leader, this speech has remained his most powerful and, yet impactful. It was prophetic.
This oration, which has variously been referred to as the ‘‘Iron Curtain Speech’’ candidly set forth the looming ideological confrontation between the West and East, following a victorious outing for the allies in the War, the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Great Britain and others.
A little jogging of the memory is needed here. You see, prior to the end of the war, there had been ongoing negotiations among the allied powers, on how to shape the world soon after the guns went silent. Two great allies, the USA and the Soviet Union, would later turn into bitter enemies, fuelled by mutual suspicions on each other’s intentions.
While the US and its Western European allies wanted the world modelled after the Western ideals, the Soviet Union, having emerged stronger from the war, was already eyeing possessions in the Eastern Europe, later establishing satellite states that became communist enclaves, until 1989, when the Berlin wall fell, and with it, Communism.
Back to Sir Churchill’s speech whose proper title, according to https://winstonchurchill.org was ‘‘Sinews of Peace’’ is now regarded as Sir Churchill’s most famous speech. But it is this line, ‘‘From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent,’’ that is now considered a watershed moment for the world.
In that hall of 3,000 people and 30,000 others outside, was Harry Truman, the US President and who had introduced Sir Churchill to deliver the landmark speech.
As a matter of fact, it is argued that Russian historians now recognize this speech as the declaration of the Cold War, which for almost half a century, divided the world into two spheres of influence; the Western Capitalism and the Eastern Communism.
But long before the ‘‘iron curtain’’ divided Europe and indeed the world, there was something else, that already did, profoundly. Unlike the Cold War which dissipated after a while, this phenomenon, didn’t and, probably never will, for as long as humanity exists. This is driving, whether on the left or right side of the road!
It is no doubt that regardless which corner of the world you are in, you drive on a particular side of the road. And let us not get it twisted. There are only two ways, left or right. There’s no in-between!
The tradition of driving either on the left or hand side of the road, is a complicated one, just as are the theories that tend to explain its origins.
But like the Cold War divided the world into West and East, driving divided the world into left and right! And this was long before Sir Churchill spoke at the Westminster College on that fateful 3rd May 1945!
Left or Right, Which is Right?
In Kenya, the rule of the road is, keep left, unless overtaking!
For ages now, there has been a debate of which of the two sides, is actually the better or the right! But just like religion, there are different perspectives, and it is almost certain, that on this simple, yet complex issues, there will never be a consensus.
Now let’s get some facts right first, or is it left first?Uuuh,there we go again.
According to the Business Insider, 76 countries and territories drive on the left side of the road while the rest, the majority, drive on the right. The countries that drive on the left, are predominantly former British colonies, at least according to the World Standards, a global think tank dedicated to creating awareness on the issue of standardization.
It is basically the very core question of why don’t all countries drive on the same side of the road? Why the differences?
Well, on this, many theories abound.
There’s a school thought that traces driving on the left to ancient Rome. It is believed that Romans used to steer their carts and chariots with the left hand, so that they could use the right hand to defend themselves in case of an attack.
The National Museum of the UK indicates that in 1300 AD, Pope Boniface VIII declared the ‘rule of the road’ that required all pilgrims to Rome to always keep left!
This practice would later filter into medieval Europe, with the British putting in place measures to the effect that left hand traffic became law in 1835. But not everyone followed suit. In France for instance, the shift has to do with one man; Napoleon Bonaparte. Because the revolutionary was left handed, he found riding on the right an admirable military tactic.
But there are other explanations too. The story is that before the French revolution, the aristocrats, the people of means, used to travel on the left side of the road, forcing the peasants, the hoi polloi, to walk on the right. After the revolution which shattered all previously held privileges in the society, the aristocrats, preferring to keep a low profile in the new dispensation, joined the peasants on the right!
The right hand rule became official in 1795 when it was formally introduced in Paris.
For the US, even though it was a British colony, it is understood that the reason why they drive on the right is because back in the day, in the 18th century to be precise, riders of freight wagons used to sit on the left of the rear horse, freeing the right hand for manoeuvring the beasts. So traffic shifted to the right help drivers avoid collisions.
Theirs is also the small story that after their declaration of independence from Britain in 1776, the Americans wanted nothing to do with the colonial legacies, including changing the driving to the right!
Another theory has it that the days of yore, most people travelled on the left of the road, especially in the feudal societies. Given that a majority of people are right handed, swordsmen found it easier to keep to the left so that their right arm was free to latch on any weapon in case of an attack. Additionally, this kept the scabbard (the sheath that held the sword) further from them and also not hitting other people.
However, historian Peter Norton from the University of Virginia, as quoted by the Economist in 2018, dispelled this notion as ‘‘pure speculation,’’ arguing that this expectation notwithstanding, swordsmen were still capable of crossing the road for a fight, whenever circumstances called for it.
Then there’s the story of the horse riders who found it easier to mount the horse from the left, which would be difficult to do the opposite, especially given that the sword was worn on the left. Taken further, this would mean it would be easier to dismount from the of the horse, as opposed to the right, which would mean disembarking into the middle of the road.
In other countries like Russia, traffic was customarily right hand sided, but it was in 1752 that this was formally enacted as law in the country. In Demark, driving on the right was made mandatory in 1793. On the other hand, Japan drives on the left, with the tradition dating back to the 15th century. But this was made official in 1872 but chiselled in the law in 1924.
Where’s the Driver’s Seat?
On 3rd August 2018, the Economist carried a story on what happened in Sweden in 1967,when the country became the last to switch from the left to hand driving in Europe.
So all along people had been driving on the left side of the road. But there was a problem. Most of the cars had steering wheels on the left, meaning that drivers positioned on the outside of the road found themselves in endless collisions, especially when overtaking. These accidents were higher at the borders with her neighbours, who drove on the right.
The morning of 3rd September 1964 was momentous. At exactly 5am, all motorists literally ‘‘crossed the floor’’ from left to the right side of the road!
This brings an interesting question? Where’s the steering wheel located for vehicles driving either on the left or the right?
The World Standards, indicates that in countries which drive on the right of the road, cars are built in way that the drivers sit on the left hand side of the car. The opposite is the case for countries which drive on the left in which case the driver sits on the right hand of the car.
However, things weren’t smooth all through. In the USA for instance, in the early stages, the right hand driven cars had the driver sitting on the right hand of the car. This created practical problems, as shown in the Swedish case. But the driver sitting on the left of the car was also scientific, as it enabled them to make good judgement while on the road, as they sat near the centreline of the road. This rationale also helped to allow passengers seated at the front to alight onto the pavements or road sides, as opposed to right in the middle of the road.
‘‘In the matter of steering with the control on the right, the driver is farthest away from the vehicle he is passing, going in opposite direction; with it on the left side he is able to see even the wheels of the other car and easily avoids danger,” reads a car manufacturing model by Ford in 1908 as they explained the rationale of switching the steering wheel from the right to the left.
With this understanding, regardless of which side of the road one drives, one thing is always clear; the driver sits on the side of the car nearest to the centreline.
Be that as it may, this rule may not always obtain, as evidenced in specialized cars that may be modified differently. It is also now common to see vehicles driving in another country where the traffic drives on the opposite side, required to indicate on their vehicles as much.
In Kenya for instance, it is common to see heavy commercial vehicles that transport goods to neighbouring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which drive on the right, clearly labelled Right Hand Drive (R.H.D) and have to drive on right side of the road in Kenya.
This also includes cars brought into the country for other purposes which may not conform to this requirement. The National Transport and Safety Authority Act of 2012 is the law that governs road transport in Kenya.
A Universal Law on Driving
Whether you drive on the left or on the right, is not in contention.
However, one thing is clear, the world has resolved that regardless of your position on the road, there’s some things you have to bear in mind. These are contained in the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949).
The Convention was prepared by the United Nations Conference on Road and Motor Transport held at Geneva from 23 August to 19 September 1949. The Conference was convened by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and was adopted on 28 August 1948. This treaty entered into force on 26th March 1952.
The same Conference also prepared the Protocol on Road Signs and Signals that gave countries unique road identities, that made it easy to differentiate car number plates, as well as adoption of harmonized road rules across the world.
Kenya’s car international car registration sign according to the convention was EAK and this was feature on the old generation driving licences. Uganda’s sign was EAU, while Tanzania was EAT.
It is important to indicate that at the point of ratifying this treaty, many countries also registered their reservations with various articles of the Convention which they had issues with.
Venezuela for instance, expressed its reservations stating that the Convention should not enter into force in its territory until the relevant constitutional requirements had been complied with.
The other important treaty is the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, which was passed by the United Nations on 8th November 1968, and was meant to facilitate international road traffic and to enhance safety on the road by establishing standard traffic rules
A Lasting Colonial Legacy
One thing that’s clear is that the colonial legacies had a huge impact on influencing which driving tradition countries adopted. That’s why, a majority of former British colonies drive on the left, while the other fell in line with the direction of their colonizers. In West Africa for instance, the predominantly former French colony drives on the right.
In Japan, even though not a British colony, drives on the left. It is understood that the British who were instruments in the construction of the railways line there, may have been instrumental in shaping the direction that Japan took.
The National Geographic argues that getting the world to standardize one system for driving would not be an easy task.
It attributes the insistence of about 50 countries driving on the left, to one simple answer, ‘‘stubbornness!’’ This explains, it argues, why the US has stuck to measuring inches and feet.
But the bigger reason is what it would take to make such a massive shift.
‘‘Cities like London were designed to accommodate left handed driving, so switching would be no simple tweak. Changing the rules of the road is a very complex and expensive thing to do. And the more time that goes by, more cars on the road makes it even harder,’’ argues the National Geographic.
Well, just like the Cold War, driving ‘drove’ a lasting wedge on the world, more powerful than the ‘iron curtain’ that balkanized the world along fickle lines of capitalism and communism.
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