Why Do American Cars Have the Steering Wheel On the Left?

Even though the overwhelming majority of the world has chosen to put the steering wheel on the left, it is still a hotly debated issue between the right and left-handers. American cars are among the majority of cars that put their steering wheels on the left side of the car. But why is this something that varies across the world? It seems like it would be easier for companies like Honda or Ford not to make different steering wheel configurations. Alas.

The dashboard, steering wheel and front seats of a 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid
2021 Honda Accord Hybrid interior | American Honda Motor Co., Inc

What countries drive on the left side of the road? 

According to Gear Patrol, the British, Japanese, Indians, and Australians, among others, say the steering wheel belongs on the right-hand side of the car and the vehicle on the left-hand side of the road. 

Most countries have opted to have the steering wheel on the left side of the car and drive on the right side of the road. However, some countries do the opposite. This feels like a strange thing to vary from country to country. So, why do American cars have the steering wheel on the left? 

Deciding which side is better is impossible

Subaru interior with the steering wheel on the right side of the car
Interior detail of a Subaru Impreza with a customized by Tiley Motors of Bristol | Joby Sessions/Future via Getty Images

The argument for either side can never be settled from an objective standpoint. However, we can figure out why it is the way it is. 

Although there are plenty of stories and rumors that attempt to explain the origins of the two driving positions, the most likely explanation is something that might feel a bit out of LEFT field. 

“Teamsters” isn’t just a term for truck driving union members. In fact, we are talking about the group that gave Jimmy Hoffa’s boys their name, the horse team drivers back in the pre-automotive days

According to Gear Patrol, these horse-drawn wagons lacked a place to sit while piloting these hoss pulling teams. As a result, the teamster who drove the wagon would sit in the next best place, atop one of the horses themselves. Since most people are right-handed, the teamsters would use the crop or whip in their right hand, meaning they needed to sit on the left-hand horse. 

How did we decide which side of the road to drive on? 

sign telling European drivers to drive on the left side of the road in the U.K. in case they have left-hand drive American cars
European road sign | Getty

Given that most teamsters were most comfortable whipping with the right hand and sitting on the left-hand horse, it only made sense to organize traffic in such a way that set drivers on the right side of the road. With drivers on the left side of the vehicle and the right side of the road, drivers are closer to the center lines and better judge how close they are to oncoming traffic.

So, then why do other countries put their steering wheels on the other side? 

Gear Patrol notes that the history in these instances, like England, in particular, is a bit murkier. GP says that one of the earliest written records about the British driving position dates back to 1753 and pertains to traversing London Bridge. However, some suggest that the left-side road rules might even date back to the Middle Ages. 

Even on the other side, right-handedness is the cause of it all. The idea is travelers who carried swords would have them sheathed on the left-hand side of their bodies to draw the blades with their right hands. Walking on the right-hand side of the road would mean those sheathed swords would slap against each other and could potentially cause some obvious problems. 

Interestingly, by the time the colonies that would eventually become the United States were being settled by Europeans, the pre-Americans had pistols making the sword calculus less important giving way to the proper driving position we would one day come to adopt. As is the explanation for so many other things here, American cars have their steering wheels on the left because of guns and horses.

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