CLOSE
iStock
iStock

Why Do People in the UK Drive on the Left Side of the Road?

iStock
iStock

As a visitor, one of the most disorienting parts of being in the UK is crossing the street. While traffic in almost all of the world passes on the right side, cars in Britain and many of its former colonies drive on the left. Just why do Brits drive on the opposite side of the road from most other countries?

The practice far predates cars, according to The Telegraph. In fact, it goes back to the Middle Ages. In ye olden days, when traveling down a highway put you at risk of being attacked or robbed, traveling on the left was a matter of safety. Since most people were (and still are) right-handed, passing on the left meant leaving your sword-hand free to take on any challengers. Whether on foot, horseback, or in a carriage, you needed to be able to whip out your lance, sword, pitchfork, or staff in response to a threat—and quickly.

According to the BBC, this practice was widespread outside of Britain, too, potentially dating back as far as ancient Greece and Rome. The UK wasn’t the only place with dangerous roads, after all. But various pressures eventually shifted travelers to the right.

Notably, Napoleon was a fan of right-side driving, and brought the practice to territories he conquered (as did French colonists). That included Germany, and Hitler continued to spread the tradition across Europe as he took power, forcing Czechoslovakia and Austria (where half the country drove on the left side of the road and the other half drove on the right) to switch to right-side driving.

America has been driving on the right side of the road since colonial times, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s research, likely both as a rejection of British customs and because it made it easier to control a wagon. Drivers either sat on the left of their wagon or led their horses on foot on the left-hand side, so it was much easier to see oncoming traffic by traveling on the right side of the road. Plus it made it less likely that you’d end up in a ditch. Pennsylvania regulated right-side traffic on a new turnpike in 1792, and New York regulated right-hand driving on all public highways in 1804. Many states followed suit, but Henry Ford really cemented the practice; he chose to put the Model T’s steering column on the left, and the car’s immense popularity meant that the rest of the car industry followed suit.

Britain has previously considered switching over to right-side driving (as Sweden did in 1967), but the idea isn’t likely to take hold anytime soon. In 2009, Samoa became one of the few nations in the world to switch from right-side driving to left-side driving, in a bid to make cheap cars from Australia and New Zealand available there.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
AFP, Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

arrow
Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER