Driving On The Left

Since I’ve started my trip, I’ve rented cars in Hawaii, Easter Island, Fiji, New Zealand, Japan and Australia. As an American, I am accustomed to driving on the right-hand side of the road. I haven’t driven on the right, however, since I was in Easter Island back in May 2007. In fact, save for my time in South Korea, I haven’t been in a country where they drive on the right since early October.

Driving is something which becomes instinctive after a while. You don’t explicitly think about which side of the road you drive on. You don’t think about the difference between and left and right and turn. Once you learn how to drive, these are all things which get pushed to the back part of your brain and just do it.

However, once you are forced to drive on the other side, all those habits which have become automatic are forced to the forefront. Driving on the other side is like trying to write without crossing t’s or dotting i’s. It is so automatic, you have to think hard to break those habits.

I first had to drive on the left in New Zealand. For the first two hours, I had the radio turned off and had both hands gripped to the wheel. Every time I had to turn, I had to recite a mantra to myself “stay on the left, stay on the left, stay on the left”. The secret to driving on the other side, I always joke, is to try to kill yourself whenever you turn….and fail.

After a while, you do get used to it. The only time I ever find myself trying to drive on the right now is when I pull out of a parking lot. I think it is because parking lots (carparks here in Australia) don’t have defined lanes.

Even if you get used to driving on the other side, that doesn’t mean everything falls into place. The cars have the steering wheel on the other side, but it is not a mirror image of a left-hand drive car. For most things in the driver’s seat, things are just shifted over, not a mirror image. For example, the gas peddles are on the same side. You use your right foot to accelerate and brake. The rear view mirror is in the same spot, but you have to look to your left instead of your right, which took me a while to get used to. For awhile I would instinctively look up and to the right, only catch myself looking out the window.

The gear box is also the same, which means if you are driving a manual transmission car, you have have to shift towards you to upshift, with your left hand.

The one thing which is changed is the turn signal. I’m used to using my left hand to make a turn. However, in right-hand drive cars, it is on the right. I’ve caught myself turning on the windshield wipers several times when I was making a turn. It took a while, but I eventually figured out that the reason the turn signal is reversed is because the gear box isn’t. If you are shifting with your left hand, you have to use your right hand to turn.

I think most people would agree that it would be great if everyone on Earth drove on the same side of the road. The problem is, it is a very difficult thing to change once you’ve picked a side. As far as I can tell, the only countries which drive on the left today are former British colonies plus Japan and Indonesia. Sweeden used to drive on the left but made the switch to the right back in 1968. They announced the switch years in advance and when the day arrived, they banned all driving for several days so there was an abrupt period of change. Some parts of Canada also drove on the left until the 1920s.

In most countries, when they drive on the left, the cars are right-hand drive and vice versa. However, this is not always the case. In the Bahamas, they drive on the left, but given their proximity to the US, they drive mostly left-hand drive cars. (the drive wouldn’t be near the median but near the shoulder of the road). Likewise, when I was in Palau and Kosrae, they drove on the right, but most of the cars were Japanese imports with right-hand drive.

I would consider myself a fully ambidextrous driver at this point. I really have no problem driving in busy cities, navigating roundabouts, or even remembering which side of the car I have to enter. I’m just glad I didn’t have to drive much in Melbourne. They have a weird rule where on many corners, you have to get in the left lane to make a right-hand turn (yes, you read that correctly. The make you cross a lane of traffic to make a turn.)