Through The Looking Glass

Samoans are in revolt over switching from right to left driving:

The main reason for Samoa’s switch is that two of its biggest neighbors, Australia and New Zealand, drive on the left-hand side, whereas Samoa currently drives on the right, as in the U.S. By aligning with Australia and New Zealand, the prime minister says, it will be easier for poor Samoans to get cheap hand-me-down cars from the 170,000 or so Samoans who live in those two countries. It could also help more people escape tsunamis, says Mr. Tuilaepa.

It all “makes common sense,” says Mr. Tuilaepa in an interview in his office overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the capital city of Apia. Mr. Tuilaepa, who sports a wave of fluffy whitening hair and wears flip-flops, has run the country for more than a decade.

Opponents and some outside experts fear the switch will turn many of Samoa’s already-dangerous roads into disaster zones. Roads wind through mountainous jungle terrain with sharp turns, few traffic lights and pedestrians and dogs sharing the lanes. Critics say the switch will add further confusion with drivers likely to forget which side they’re supposed to be on.

I’m assuming that this means that the cars are traditionally mostly left-hand drive (i.e., American or continental European), and that they’re concerned that if they start to import a lot more from ANZ that it will result in accidents because people won’t be able to see to make left-hand turns, not to mention the confusion by long-time drivers on the other side and the fact that most existing cars are set up for right-side driving.

This is one of those cases (like chirality) that it doesn’t matter which way you do it, but you have to be consistent. I don’t have that much trouble going to the UK or Ireland or Australia and driving, because I’m sitting on the wrong side of the car, which gives me a constant clue that things are different (and it’s interesting how the Anglosphere has split on this issue). While I don’t have that much trouble driving, I could easily get myself killed as a pedestrian, because I forget which way to look for traffic when stepping into a road. The most dangerous situation I’ve ever encountered driving is in the Virgin Islands (including the American ones, not just Tortola) in which the cars are left-hand drive, but you drive on the left, which makes it very dangerous to make right turns if you don’t have a passenger spotting for you (and it also makes it very confusing and hard to remember which side of the road to drive on).

If they go through with this, given how many legacy cars will remain on the island, I predict a huge increase in traffic accidents and casualties. It’s another misplaced leftist (in this case literally) program to help “the poor” that will end up killing a lot of them. And some rich people as well.

[Update a few minutes later]

It’s also interesting to note that Canada remains an oddball — using British spellings and measurement systems (first Imperial and now metric) but follow their southern cousins in their driving habits. But when you share a continent and an open border (though not so much as it used to be) it makes sense that this much more important standard is consistent across borders.

18 thoughts on “Through The Looking Glass”

  1. More dangerous for a pedestrian? Didn’t your parents ever tell you to look both ways before crossing the street?

  2. Canada started out driving on the left. This worked OK until the highways started to cross provincial and international borders; there was too much of a problem of cars and trucks coming from the States, and later, from provinces that had already switched. I thionk Nova Scotia was the last to switch, around 1920.

    Canada is actually more European than Britain in the matter of measurment units; Britain retains miles and MPH on road signs (they got an exemption from the European Union when they joined) while Canada uses KM and KM/H.

    Anguilla also drives on the left but uses mostly cars with steering wheels on the left. It drove my wife, who is English, crazy when we were there and I had to drive. I am fine with driving on the left but I find it really odd to use a manual transmission with my left hand; I really prefer an automatic shift when driving on the left for that reason.

  3. I found shifting with my left hand a little weird, but not sufficiently so to prefer an automatic. One of the things that I like about across the pond is that I can still rent stick shifts, even if I have to use the sinister hand…

    Didn’t your parents ever tell you to look both ways before crossing the street?

    Like I listened to my parents…? 😉

  4. When I flew into London a couple years ago, one of the reasons that I rented a car in Brussels when I went to Europe, rather than in England, was that I was planning to spend most of my time on the continent, and it made no sense to have a right-hand-drive car there, which is what I would have ended up with after the Chunnel. I took the high-speed train from London to Brussels instead.

  5. I can’t easily drive European stick shifts having only ever driven one in the UK… I seem to find that I keep trying to wind the window down everytime I have to change gear.

    I’ve embraced the automatic transmission now.

    In addition to the UK, Australia, NZ etc… it’s also most of Southern Africa, Japan, Singapore and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

    I suspect being islands or separated from lots of cross border driving helps that.

  6. Heh, I took a vacation in Anguilla, also. Same deal, left hand drive and left hand ride. I was mostly fine but I did leave a restaurant once and was busy talking and probably went about a mile down the road and looked up and realized, “OOPS!”. But with all the goats in the road someone driving on the wrong side of the road is probably just another distraction “Eh, stoopid toorest”. In fact the locals usually got more pissed at tourist who didn’t just pull over the side of the road and let them pass you even if you were on the right side of the road.

    Useless bit of Josh knowledge:

    Subaru ships their JDM Impreza over to the U.S. by simply drilling holes in the passenger side of their right hand ride car and moving the steering wheel and pedals over to the other side. So, the passengers in the SOA Impreza actually have a nice flat panel to rest their feet against but far less leg room then then the driver. I would say that the Japanese are so resourceful that they probably thoughtfully made the right hand side shorter for those of Asian ancestor and knowing that those of European ancestry are traditionally taller provided more leg room for optimal interchangeability between regional distributions. Though I often point and laugh at my passengers who’s knees are up to their chest.

  7. I’ve been to Apia. It seems to me, “rush hour” was 300 or 400 cars, milling about smartly in the heat. granted my visit was in the late 70s. However, I sent the URL to a friend who was there just a few years ago. His adopted son is from Fiji, and Apia is on route there. His rememberance was like mine, but maybe doubled.

    It’s not like they are changing the roads in LA.

    I think their gripe has more to do with tradition, than anything else.

  8. Well when the New World Order arrives we will all be forced to drive in Aero cars 2 lanes wide.

  9. I can drive on the left (England, Australia, South Africa) with no problem, but I cannot use a stick shift on the left. The problem is that you’re using the opposite hand/arm, but the shift pattern is NOT mirror-imaged. If 1st gear were up and to the right, with 4th down and to the left, I think I could manage it.

    As it is, I pay (lots) extra for an automatic transmission when visiting one of those countries.

  10. In the early 70s the US gave Okinawa back to Japan and they immediately turned everyone back to left side driving. There were some films with cars weaving and crashing. It took some time to get the drivers into the new mindset

  11. As a former NZer who learned to drive on the left side I found the switch to driving in the US pretty easy, though it is massively helped by the impossibility of renting a manual tranny. Slush-box or nothing.
    Oddly, I discovered that by far the most treacherous situation in the US was making a left turn into 2-way traffic from the far left lane on a 1-way street. For some reason that one just seemed to trigger a total reset and all my carefully adopted US driving habits were forgotten, even though I was on the “wrong” side of the car. Of course that’s behind me now. Nowadays I find it is no problem to switch from UK to US style driving. Having said which Anguilla just sounds insane.

  12. Anguillians love to honk their horns. They honk when they drive past someone they know. They honk when they drive past someone, they don’t know. You drive past and honk 2 times they honk 3 just to show you up — Honk HONK, honk honk HONK. The receptionist at the hotel told us it was polite to just pull over and let them pass. I was like, in my usual Indy style of Dallas driving, “Hell NO you ain’t passin’ me” *vrooooom* as I poured on Dodge Colt power. I think it was a hybrid with its power augmented with the disemboweled feces of goats from ancient past. At least it smelled like it anyways.

  13. My experience driving in the UK pretty much parallel yours, Rand – my brain instantaneously corrected for driving on the left based on which side of the car I was sitting on.

    The one issue I had trouble with was round-abouts. It took a conscience effort to make my self enter the circle to the left, especially in rural settings where there was no other traffic to provide a clue and the road was at most 1.5 lanes wide to start with.

    As far as shifting with the left hand, it was a little strange in the beginning, but seemed normal after an hour. I’ve always had more of an issue with German shifts and their stupid decision to put reverse to the left of 1st. Frequently, I’ve started to pull out of a parking space thinking I was in reverse when actually I was in 1st, or vice versa.

  14. UGH…

    I’ve always had more of an issue with German shifts and their stupid decision to put reverse to the right of 1st.

    I am so turned around, I’ll never be able to drive home this evening!

  15. My wife is making noises about us getting passports because she wants to visit Bermuda some time — presumably when Jim Cantore isn’t there. She also remarked that if she has a passport she’s going to want to travel a lot and fill it up, so I told her from here the Bahamas would be the most convenient frequent destination requiring a passport.

    Until this thread I hadn’t given any thought to left-side/right-side driving, but if we rent cars in any English-speaking island country in this hemisphere it’s going to be a consideration.

    I seem to find that I keep trying to wind the window down everytime I have to change gear.

    Daveon, I can top that. The inside door handle in my truck fell off recently and these days I have to roll down the window and open the door from the outside. I can just see myself going to open the door to get out, only to inadvertently put the car back into gear instead.

  16. “More dangerous for a pedestrian? Didn’t your parents ever tell you to look both ways before crossing the street?”

    There are two times that I came close to being flattened. One time was in Cambridge, MA, where I attempted to cross the street at this big curve in the road, not far from MIT and in immediate proximity to where Kurzweil had once set up — this Ford Thunderbird just came flying around the curve and I had to run out of the crosswalk.

    The other time was when I spent a week in a rural part of Japan, where everyone had cars and drove fast. This was a work visit, and the usual touristy thing in Japan is to go to the big cities where you get around by train.

    My drill for jaywalking in the US (OK, OK) is to “look left to clear the near lane, look right to clear the far lane, and then glance left to see that I am not about to step right in front of a car that came-out-of-nowhere.”

    For jaywalking across a left-hand drive road (or even just plain crossing at the crosswalk, maybe I wasn’t jaywalking in Japan, you know, to not have to fish out the Blue Passport to the friendly constable in a foreign land), this drill is backwards. I almost got creamed a couple of times.

  17. A few years ago the death of a female high school exchange student from Texas made the national news here in in Australia.

    I can see how it can so easily happen having been to the US numerous times.

    Couldn’t the Samoans buy used cars from the US? They’d be cheaper anyway than used cars sourced in Australia and NZ.

Comments are closed.