Beep, beep!

An exchange student from Birmingham (England, not Alabama) came to stay with my family for a summer when I was in high school. While she was amused by Southern biscuits (as opposed to the British variety) and laughed the first time she asked for tea and was delivered a tall glass of the icy cold sweet stuff, she was terrified every time we had to get in the car. Growing up in England, she was used to cars driving on the left and the experience of riding on what she saw as the "wrong" side of the road, simply scared her to death. While the U.S. started out as a British colony driving on the left side of the road is one tradition that never made its way across the Atlantic.

Sports Car in England
Credit: John Lamb/Getty Images

According to a history of the road shared by the Federal Highway Administration, driving on the right has always been the American way. "All available evidence seems to indicate that the right-hand travel predominated in Colonial America from the time of the earliest settlements," they write, citing their organization's unofficial historian, Albert C. Rose. That right-hand rule applied to pedestrians moseying on the right side of the road, Conestoga wagons heading west, ox-teams loaded with wares, and strangers riding into town on horseback. The reason had to do with the folks driving those bulky Conestoga wagons, which reportedly started to be used around 1750. Per the Federal Highway Administration, "the drivers rode the left wheel horse" so they could better gauge the distance between passing wagons. In fact, some wagons didn't even have driver's seats built in as they were used for cargo.

Left-hand traffic officially became the law of the land in Britain in 1773, reports. According to Rose, the colonists saw what England did and went the opposite way due to what he termed a "smoldering opposition to customs of the Old World". So, if you could tick off the red coats and keep the wagons rolling smoothly, why not?

As wagons turned into cars, along came carmaker Henry Ford, who put the steering wheel on the left-hand side of his Model T. That cemented the need to drive on the right side of the road. In the U.S. the right-hand driving rule stuck and drivers on vacation —and exchange students—have just had to learn to grin, bear it, and buckle up.