Tehachapi to Tonopah

OK, now it can be told. I do not know too well my left hand from my right. Those that know me may take this as a metaphor for all-round incompetence. But no, I protest. However those classmates for whom I was navigator around the twisting lanes of Cornwall when we were but schoolkids with our first car will attest that there were times when, like some demented satnav, I was demanding with some urgency that the driver “go left at the next junction” while I was at the same moment wildly gesticulating with my hand in his eyeline that right was the approved direction which would lead us to safety, civilisation and where we were going.

Maybe it is this dis-handedness that has led me to worry distractedly and at length about when and why America changed from the traditions of its patrimony and heritage — driving like the English had done since the beginning of recorded time, on the left side of the highway — to the plainly Napoleonic and, let’s face it, wrong, side of the road, ie the right side of the road.

I’ve rehearsed the arguments before. Colonial America had built cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and New York for horse and carriage traffic. There were almost certainly “rules of the road” and one of them was for everybody to stay to their side so that accidents did not happen. The logical choice bearing in mind so many had come from England in those days was to do as it was in the old country. And for that matter English law was to be obeyed before 1776 so it’s fair to say that left was right.

Then came the revolution. But after that upheaval it did not stop folks following English fashion, buying English wares. Even after the war of 1812 not much had changed and it was only gradually that English style was supplanted. So why go on buying everything from English china to English bricks (yes they did) and yet hate the old colonials enough to boycott a perfectly innocuous piece of Englishness.

Ah you say, he will never be able to answer the question definitively as there is no visual proof of how roads were, how people were and which side they drove.

Then I started to look at early street scene film footage. Most of it is shot in the 1890s and 1900s. At that late stage I imagined, with trams and traffic jams, police controlled intersections and people, thousand upon thousand of hurrying and distracted people, then it would be clear that driving on the right would be ingrained in the American psyche.

And yet, this very morning I watched some Manhattan street scenes and all I could see was peripheral evidence that pointed a little to the contrary, if you accept this premise. If you drive on the right you will sit on the left side of the vehicle to be able to judge passing traffic coming the other way. If you drive on the left, likewise you sit on the right. I am not wrong in this, am I?

23rd st

Click the pic

You can watch it all as it’s fascinating stuff, but “m’lud, I draw the court’s attention to” that skinny man in suspenders and a white hatbanded slouch hat on the sidewalk on 23rd St in August 1901 at 8′ 30″ in.

He is the driver of the open wagon with the large crate. Watch him get into the wagon and deliberately avoid the seat on the left and slide over to the right. Now watch the vehicle across the street going away from us. Then watch while he waits for the brewery dray to pass coming toward us. None of them seem to have gotten the memo.

If you watch the video from the start, which is excellently slowed down and has appropriately evocative sound effects, most wagoners seem to favour sitting on the right. The auto drivers seem to mostly have their steering tillers on the left. Tram drivers sit in the middle.

I welcome any transport historian’s take on this, as I do not know my left hand from my right.

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