Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Which side is the steering wheel?

I've always wondered if the person who designed the first car with the steering wheel on the right hand side was a left handed person. What is your view on that one? Which one is the right (correct) side?!?

Well, first of all, let's get our facts straight. As I have said before, bad questions deserve bad answers. What make you think the first cars to drive on the left -- or right -- had steering wheels? Steering wheels didn't show up until around 1904. Not only that, but your question is ambiguous because there are two issues here: which side of the road do you wish to drive on, and given that decision, which side of the car would you sit on?

Why do you think the side of the road came about with automobiles? Horses were told to stick to the left going over London bridge (not the bridge that moved to Arizona) in 1756. The general Highways act of 1773 in Britain applied the rule to the entire country. And although I have looked hard, I do not see any steering wheels on horses. Napoleon made his troops keep to the right.

Most early cars had the divers sit in the middle, a practice that makes great sense to me. This way, you can separate those fighting kids -- put one on your left, one on your right. When I lived in England, I drove a left-hand drive car and drove on the left, I found it superior because I could avoid all those drainage ditches in the Cambridge roads. And because all the oncoming driers were scared out of their minds when they saw me coming, they all made sure to keep a huge distance between our cars.

The Wikipedia says:

"Most early motor cars had the drivers seat in the middle. Later some manufacturers chose to have the driver's seat nearest the centre of the road in order to look out for oncoming traffic whilst others chose to put the seat on the other side so that the drivers could avoid damaging their vehicles on walls, hedges, roadside gutters and other obstacles. Eventually the former idea prevailed."

Folklore says it all has to do with swords and lances and yes, if the folks carrying them were right-handed (and everyone was right handed -- left-handedness is a modern invention. In earlier times it wasn't allowed (this is the "just say no" philosophy applied to genetics), they wanted to be on the left to free up their sword hand. Unless they were jousting, in which case they drove on the right to position the lance better. And even if you drive on the left or right, it isn't clear where to sit, although there isn't much choice when you are on a horse.

So anyway, it's all a big muddle. and it has to do with history and folklore and stuff that nobody ever gets right, which is a good thing if you make your living as a historian: you can always make living disagreeing with the previous folks.

(If you want a serious essay, try But that won't make you any wiser.)