Tuesday 21 October 2014

Driving on the Left Side of the Road

At a dinner party the other night, a story was told by one of the guests, John Farnham, about his father, who lived in News Brunswick when the laws were changed to make driving on the right side of the road the rule. John told the story his father used to relate about some of the interesting side-effects of the new regulations.

I did not know, or at least did not remember that, in many parts of Canada, vehicles use to travel on the left side of the road, the same as in almost all of the British Commonwealth countries. On December 1, 1922, New Brunswick changed the rules regarding which side of the road one should drive on, presumably to conform to what was the case in the United States right next door. In Nova Scotia, the law came into effect on April 15, 1923. British Columbia had made the switch on January 1, 1922. Prince Edward Island changed on May 1, 1924 and Newfoundland on January 2, 1947. Ontario and Quebec drivers were already following the practice, having apparently been doing so since before the takeover of the country from the French. The central provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba had also been driving down the right side for many decades.
Page one of Amherst Daily News for Saturday, April 14, 1923 – reporting on the changes to road rules about driving on the right side (copied October 20, 2014 from the website, History of Automobiles)
Some newspapers had a field day with the new idea and the potential problems that could come along with the change as described on the website, History of Automobiles, part of Nova Scotia’s Electric Gleaner website.

It seems there was a lot of cross-border activity between New Brunswick and Maine. Many local businesspeople, like milkmen, used to travel back and forth selling their wares and services. To do so meant a trip across a bridge spanning the Saint Croix River. This was, of course, in the days when there were still a great many horse-drawn wagons in use in both countries. Before the changes, vehicle and wagon operators were required to change over to the left lanes in the middle of the bridge to conform to New Brunswick law. After the change, they could continue on their way in the right-hand lanes. John’s father told him that the horses were well-trained and very habitual in their trips into Canada. On reaching the middle of the bridge after the changeover, they automatically moved to the left as they had always done, causing some mayhem with motorists and others travelling south. It was some time before all of the teams had been re-trained to stay to the right for the entire trip.

The same problem apparently occurred between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the four and a half months they had different driving laws. There were other considerations as well resulting from the changes. The History of Automobiles website reports that “Nova Scotia Tramways & Power Company Limited, which owned and operated the electric streetcar system in Halifax, sued the provincial government to recover the cost of changing the doors on all streetcars to the other side, and the cost of changes in track layout.  In Lunenburg County, 1923 is still known as The Year of Free Beef; the price of beef dropped precipitously because oxen which had been trained to keep to the left could not be retrained — oxen are notoriously slow-witted — and many teamsters had to replace their oxen with new ones trained to keep to the right; the displaced oxen were sent to slaughter.”

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.