Dark Side of the Highway
Song - Artist - Album
Kinky Sex Makes the World Go 'Round (1982) - Dead Kennedys - Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, Alternative Tentacles
Have you ever wondered why the Brits and the Irish and others drive on the left? One answer is that it dates from olden times when people routinely got around on foot or on horseback. Back then, principally in the 17th-19th centuries, travelling could be very dangerous. Footpads and horsed highwaymen would accost their intended victims on what were primitive and often desolate roads, pathways, and trails. Often the travellers’ only defence was the sword and progressing on the left side of the road gave them a natural arc for their right hand to swing their weapon; an additional benefit was in keeping the scabbard on the left hip away from an attacker. These arrangements forced horsemen to mount their steeds on the left, at the edge of the road rather than on the right – from the middle of the road. So, it made perfect sense for the first rule of the road in the UK to be: Keep left.
I thought about this history today, driving home from the WHUS studios in hilly north-east Connecticut. You might wonder about the connection. I’ll tell you that it had nothing to do with highwaymen and everything to do with moving vehicles. Early travel in Europe and elsewhere, including the United States, relied heavily on horses and other dray animals to haul people and freight. On hilly terrain carriages and other drawn vehicles were at risk from running away, especially backwards, if the draft animals became tired on long climbs. Downhill vehicle control was taken care of by harness design and, often, by dragging a heavy log which was otherwise simply carried on board. But runaway vehicles careering backwards downhill were a real hazard. One can imagine having someone walking uphill beside a carriage or a dray, ready to drop a rock or other large hindrance behind a wheel if the draft animals showed any weariness. But the obvious disadvantages to that were resolved when someone thought about the downhill trick of dragging a heavy log behind. It turns out that going uphill actually had an equivalent solution. Instead of the large log impeding forward movement downhill someone came up with the idea of a short strong pole secured to and suspended from the main vehicle pole for hillclimbing. This ’brake’ simply dragged along the road until the weight of the vehicle overcame the strength of the draft animals. At the point where the vehicle began to move backwards downhill the end of the brake pole would dig into the ground and halt further movement. Very quickly, I would guess, another rule of the road developed simply as a courtesy to draft animals and their handlers struggling up long or steep hills: Give way to climbing vehicles.
On hills in Britain it is still common to see automobiles and trucks giving way to climbing vehicles; there, the luxury of automatic gear shifting is not yet universal. That courtesy is not so common here in the United States although, probably to the consternation of following vehicles, I still practice it - as I did this afternoon. I know the driver of the car overtaking the postal delivery vehicle on the up grade was grateful when I slowed my downhill progress. It does not matter if he was driving a stick shift or an automatic transmission. He smiled and waved to me!