Sunday, April 18, 2010


The Taftsville covered bridge over the Ottaquechee River, near the village of Woodstock is one of Vermont’s oldest. Built by Salmond Emmons III in 1836, it features an unusual combination of Kingpost trusses and a central arch. In its historic heyday, it probably registered the passing of hundreds of horse-drawn wagons every day. It continues to serve nearly 175 years later.

Why We Drive on the Right

It is assumed by many visitors to New England, that the purpose of covered bridges was to negate the need for removing snow from the roadway in winter. It comes as a surprise when a native to the area explains that the very opposite was true; that it actually became necessary to shovel snow onto the protected roadway, in order for horse-drawn sleds to negotiate the tunnel-like structure during the winter months. Talented builders designed and built with a ship-builder’s craftsmanship, and an eye for the future in mind. Roofed over and closed in, the ruggedly-arched edifice was protected from the elements year-round.
Over the years I have visited, photographed, and savored the history of more than one hundred of these structures for which I feel an almost spiritual connection. Some of my favorites were built in the period between the 1830s and 1880s, some with weathered signs which still warn “Please Walk Your Horses”, or “Speed Limit 10 mph”. (I should mention that some of them are haunted !)
It is always interesting to note the extent to which our present-day transportation network serves to remind us of the lasting impact of original “horse-power”. The standard gauge of America’s railroads for instance finds tracks divided by four feet, eight-and-one-half inches, the same as the first horse-drawn trolleys. That dimension was brought to our shores by British colonists who followed the Stephenson design which, some say, started with the wagon ruts left behind by Roman coaches drawn by War Horses whose double hitch determined axle design.
The landscape of England is littered with evidence of the long Roman occupation, beginning with Hadrian’s Wall, and including venerable canals and beautifully-engineered stone aqueducts, and even the routes followed by modern motorways. Some historians even believe that Britons’ odd habit of driving on the left side of the road may be anchored in that same history. Most Roman soldiers were right-handed, and so carried their swords on their left side. They would have wished to protect the scabbard by passing to the left of oncoming traffic – both mounted and afoot – while having unobstructed vision on their right. This preference appears to be borne out by studies of ancient wheel ruts at a stone quarry site near Rome.
Why then did America’s English settlers decide to drive on the right ? One answer is that after 1776, they wanted to become as ”un-English” as possible, which by the way explains why coffee replaced tea as a national beverage of choice. The other answer is that citizens of the northeast did continue to drive on the left for some time. Pennsylvania made the switch to the right in 1792, New York in 1804, and New Jersey not until 1813, with the Dutch settlers holding out even longer. Looking north into British-Canada, most provinces did not change until the 1920s, and Newfoundland not until 1947.
Change is never easy and changing a national driving tradition gives added meaning to the word “complicated”. Finding themselves contiguous with Denmark at one end and Norway at the other – both of whose populations drove on the right side of the road – “left-handed” Sweden decided to change in the interest of compatibility. When put to a national referendum in 1963, the people said a big NO ! They didn’t want to change. The Swedish legislature finally took charge, mandating the change. And so at 5:00 AM, Sunday, September 3rd, 1967 Sweden joined its neighbors and much of the rest of the world in driving on the right side of the road. In preparation, a 30-page book of instructions was issued to all drivers, and for 24 hours before the change, all traffic was halted in large cities. There was a nationwide ban on all driving for four hours prior to “zero hour”, and one hour after. Even then there was a temporary low-speed restriction. The Army had the task of changing traffic and directional signs and signals during the four-hour window, when painted lines and turn lanes had also to be adjusted. Of course some things aren’t as easy to rearrange; for instance the headlights of motor vehicles come from the factory with a slight tilt to the right or left, depending on the driving system. Then too there is the whole dichotomy of steering wheel positioning with safety and experience favoring placement of the driver on the side facing oncoming traffic (with swords no longer a major factor).
By the way, left versus right swaps were most recently carried out on Okinawa in 1978 and in Samoa in 2009. In both cases those venues changed from right to left.

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