Sharing the Road…Why do we drive on the right?

Do you walk down a hallway or a sidewalk and naturally pass on-coming fellow pedestrians by moving to the right? Why do we walk and drive on the right-hand side, anyway?

Right-side walking or driving is inherently unnatural to humans, if left to our own de- vices. Most people are right-handed, and from ancient times, the natural tendency when encountering passing foot traffic was to stay to the left. That way, your right side – your defensive arm – remains between yourself and potentially hostile others. The Romans travelled the Appian Way on the left, keeping their sword arms free to defend themselves. To this day, folks in Britain continue to gravitate to the left when walking and are required to drive on the left when driving.

So, why do we drive on the right? We didn’t just decide to do that to be different from the British, did we?

Farmer John Shreiner and his Conestoga Wagon, Lancaster County, PA, circa 1910

No, we did it because of our draft horses.

Swiss and German emigrants in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania are generally given recognition for developing these wagons while the name, itself, is taken from the Conestoga River in that area. The river, in turn, received its name from the Native Americans of the region. As large freighters, there were thousands of these “big rigs” daily hauling everything from fruits, vegetables and grain to iron, equipment, clothing and weapons between Pittsburg and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The National Road – today’s U.S. 40 – included the route from Baltimore to Wheeling, West Virginia and saw equally substantial traffic.

Back in the late 18th century, Philadelphia was the largest city in North America, due not only to political and cultural factors, but also in no small part to the fact that southeastern Pennsylvania was – and remains – some of the finest farmland in the world, the kind of farmland necessary to support a growing urban population.

Farmers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, along the banks of the Conestoga River, designed a wagon, the Conestoga wagon, capable of hauling the large amount of produce and other materials down the Lancaster Turnpike and into Philadelphia to market on Market St, and they bred large horses capable of pulling the wagons, which could be up to 20 or 26 feet long and weigh 13,000 lbs fully loaded.



The Conestoga wagons required teams of 6 or 8 horses to haul them, and their design precluded a spot in the front for
a seat for the driver. Conestoga wagon drivers either rode the left wheel horse (because, being right handed, they would want to keep all the horses to their right or in front of them), walked beside and behind the left wheel horse, or rode on the “lazy board”, which again was located behind the near wheel horse, on the left side of the wagon.


Conestoga Horse. If the name Conestoga sounds familiar, that is because in Conestoga, Pennsyvania, large, sturdy wagons were constructed that hauled settlers out west. They also bred Conestoga horses to pull the wagons in teams of six or eight. This would be America’s very first horse breed. They arose in the early 1700s and by 1817 there were thousands. They are now extinct.

The driver, encountering other traffic on the road to Philadelphia, being located as he was on the left side of the wagon, would not have been able to even see the right-hand side of the wagon, and would have preferred all traffic to pass him on his left, so that he can see to make sure his horses and wagon stay clear of passing vehicles. How do you make someone pass you on the left? You drive on the right- hand side of the road; people have no choice but to pass you on the left.

There was just one problem with that – people were walking, riding and driving on the left, as they always had, and traffic in Philadelphia soon became a nightmare. In 1792, though, the state of Pennsylvania sided with the farmers and their working draft horses – they passed a law declaring that Market St. and the Lancaster Turnpike, everyone must drive like the farmers and drive on the right. This was the first law of its kind, anywhere, to decree what side of the road everyone had to drive on. The right-side rule quickly spread throughout the rest of the young United States, and we’ve been driving (and walking) on the right side of the road ever since.




This wagon is one of a few remaining ones in existence, built in 1834, kept at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. These wagons were built by German immigrants in the Lancaster, PA area from about 1750 until the railroad took over in 1850. They could hold up to 5 tons of cargo. They were the primary means of carrying heavy loads during this time.


They drive on the right in Europe for virtually the exact same reason. The farm- land of the Ile-de-France is very similar in its relationship to Paris as Lancaster County is to Philadelphia, and farmers in France were bringing their produce in big wagons into Paris via the right-hand side of the road. Paris passed a law requiring right-hand driving in 1794, and the custom was spread throughout Europe by the Napoleonic Wars. It was the British who were trying to be different from us Yankees AND the French… They didn’t pass a law saying you had to drive on the left there until the 1820s.


Thank you Christina Hansen for this great article written for Blue Star when we first began our work back in 2009.

Sharing the Road gets more serious all the time and not just in matters of traffic or laws. Sharing the Road with our horses means inviting them back to do jobs they can do, paying attention to what is happening to our work horses and their rightful place alongside us. We lost the Canestoga, the first American bred draft horse sometime back in the 1970’s while most were not paying attention. We are on our way to losing more of our working breeds  and very soon if we are not careful. The Clydesdales, Shires and Suffolk Punch’s are all now as rare and endangered as the Panda Bear in China. We have 5 Clydesdales, 4 Shires and a Suffolk Punch on the farm if you would like to meet some amazing equine ambassadors!

Please consider Joining the Herd and helping us address the misinformation about our working horses and the possibilities and opportunities they can easily have in our communities today.  Your membership helps to take good care of the retired, disabled and homeless ones on the farm so that they can do their part by becoming important members of their community as the teachers and healers they have always been.

















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