Most of our students arrive in England by train or air – Stansted Airport is just down the road, and the Eurostar comes into St Pancras, only 45 minutes from Cambridge. But a couple of weeks ago Cyril Mouzeler and his wife Stephanie chose instead to drive from Luxembourg.
Driving from Luxembourg to Cambridge is not exactly a coast-to-coast – it only takes about five or six hours, according to Cyril – but it does of course involve switching from the right to the left of the road, a minor but bracing cognitive challenge which Cyril said was not as alarming as he had expected.
I am writing this without knowing whether Cyril and Stephanie actually made it back to Luxembourg in one piece. I assume all went well but in passing I should mention that I learnt to drive in London but my driving instructor was a Frenchman called Alain, a friendly but irascible soul who on several occasions gave the finger to other motorists on my behalf, and once to a bus driver out of the sun roof. On that evidence I think Cyril had more to worry about driving on his own soil (he is French, not Luxembourgian, and at least a little of his route would have taken him through France) than on British roads.
For the record, driving on the left is not a wilful idiocy of the British. 33% of people in the world live in countries which drive on the left, on roughly 28% of the world’s roads. Countries which drive on the left include India, Japan, Indonesia, Guyana, Surinam, Bangladesh, Malta, Malaysia, Pakistan and Hong Kong.
The history of right and left passing on roads worldwide is a patchwork of ancient customs overlain a creeping standardisation which began in the eighteenth century (the first stipulation that traffic should pass on the left in England was in 1756, but concerned only London Bridge). An edict of 1792 in France stipulated that traffic should pass on the right, an edict which Bonaparte subsequently promulgated throughout Europe – those countries which came under French Revolutionary sway during the Napoleonic Wars began to standardise to the right, but Portugal, for example, did not standardise to the right until 1928, and many parts of Italy were still passing on the left until rudely harmonised in the 1920s (in Italy in fact there was a long period when traffic passed on the right in the countryside and on the left in major cities. Traffic in Rome only started to pass on the right in 1924, and on the Ponte Palatino (also casually known as the Ponte Inglese) traffic still drives on the left).