Why do Brits drive on the left-hand side of the road? Plus 4 other facts about the history of driving in Britain

Does the Queen need a driving licence? And why do British motorists drive on the left-hand side of the road? Here’s everything you need to know about the history of driving in Britain…

Queen Elizabeth II driving her children Prince Charles and Princess Anne at Windsor, 1957. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
1

Why is the Queen allowed to drive without a driving licence?

Queen Elizabeth II enjoys numerous privileges as reigning monarch: she celebrates two birthdays a year; has a private cash machine installed at Buckingham Palace and owns any dolphin that swims into British waters. She is also allowed to drive a car without a licence, for the simple reason that driving licences are issued in her name and, according to British law, this means there is no need to hold one herself. It is for this reason, also, that the Queen does not require a passport to travel abroad.

Advertisement

The Queen has long enjoyed driving and is often photographed behind the wheel. Despite not owning a driving licence she has considerable experience on the roads, having learnt to drive at the age of 18 while volunteering for the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service as an honorary second subaltern during the Second World War.

Princess Elizabeth driving an ambulance during her wartime service in the ATS during the Second World War. (Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images)
Princess Elizabeth driving an ambulance during her wartime service in the ATS during the Second World War. (Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images)
2

When was the first driving licence introduced in Britain?

When the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, was involved in a car crash in January 2019, many people expressed surprise that the 97-year-old Duke of Edinburgh was still driving himself. He later voluntarily surrendered his driving licence, despite there being no legal age at which motorists must stop driving in Britain.

But have people always needed driving licences? In short, no.

Unlock The Library

Subscribe today to gain unlimited access to all premium articles in The Library – an exclusive area of historyextra.com containing nearly 10 years’ worth of BBC History Magazine content

Subscribe to The Library on historyextra.com

The first gasoline car was developed in the mid-1880s by German engineer Karl Benz, but people had been driving steam-powered vehicles for many years before this. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, however, that people were required to have a driver’s licence to run a vehicle on Britain’s roads. They were introduced by the Motor Car Act of 1903, which required all drivers to register their vehicles with their local borough council. Drivers had to pay to be registered: the cost was 20 shillings (or £1) for a motorcar and 5 shillings for a motorcycle. There was no driving test involved at this stage – the licence was only ever intended to be a means of identifying vehicles and their drivers (although the Motor Car Act did introduce a penalty for reckless driving). Like today, drivers were required to display registration marks on their vehicle.

3

When were driving tests introduced in Britain and made compulsory?

In 1933, there were more than 7,000 fatalities on Britain’s roads, and 216,401 injuries – despite the fact that there were only around 1.8m cars on the roads (to compare, there are an estimated 1,770 deaths and 165,000 injuries today, with more than 38.4m cars in action). To address the problem, the government introduced driving tests through a new law, the Road Traffic Act 1934.

To prevent an initial rush of applicants, testing was voluntary until 1 June 1935. The first person to pass was one Mr J Beene, who paid seven shillings and sixpence (around £22 today) for the privilege. He had a higher chance of passing in 1935 than he would now: in the first year of its implementation, the pass rate was around 63 per cent, whereas in 2009 it stood at 46 per cent. Some elements of the first driving test are still assessed today, such as the ability to complete a three-point turn, emergency braking and starting a car on a steep hill.

Motorcar manufacturer Charles Stewart Rolls in his first motor car in the late 19th-century, with a man walking in front with a red flag as the law of the time required. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Motorcar manufacturer Charles Stewart Rolls in his first motor car in the late 19th-century, with a man walking in front with a red flag as the law of the time required. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Driver testing was suspended during the Second World War while examiners were called on for other traffic duties and to supervise fuel rationing. During this time, learners were allowed to drive unaccompanied until testing was reinstated on 1 November 1946. Testing was also suspended during the Suez Crisis of 1956, so that examiners could help to administer petrol rations, but resumed on 15 April 1957.

4

Who received the first speeding ticket for driving?

Walter Arnold, from East Peckham, was the first person to receive a speeding ticket in Britain. On 28 January 1896, he was driving a motor carriage through the streets of Paddock Wood, Kent, at more than four times the legal speed limit (then 2mph). He was spotted driving by a policeman on a bicycle, who pulled Arnold over following a (presumably rather slow) five-mile chase.

5

Why do Brits drive on the left-hand side of the road?

Around 35 per cent of the world’s population drive on the left-hand side of the road – including Britain.

Market Street in Manchester, UK, 1938, with vehicles driving on the left-hand side. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Market Street in Manchester, UK, 1938, with vehicles driving on the left-hand side. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Some believe this to be a travelling habit that dates back to a time when people used to carry swords on their person. Because the majority of people are right-handed, travelling on the left-hand side of the road meant that most would be less vulnerable to attack from people passing the opposite way (after all, with your sword arm facing any oncoming traveller, you were perfectly positioned to defend yourself should the need arise).

Advertisement

Driving on the left has an even longer historical precedent in Britain. Roman soldiers, for example, are thought to have marched on the left, and archaeologists have even discovered evidence that Romans drove carts and wagons on the left.