Panic in the Streets: On the Right – err, Left – Side of the Road

Driving on the left up Elizabeth Street, Melbourne

Driving on the left up Elizabeth Street, Melbourne

Many of you have had the experience of coming from the United States or continental Europe to England, New Zealand, Australia (and astonishingly around 75 other countries), and finding yourself driving on the other side of the road. Even as a pedestrian, you had to accustom yourself to look right before you look left.

So you know that it’s not too difficult to make the shift after an awkward break-in period. On foot, you are alerted by frantically tooting horns if you forget which way to look, but at walking speed you quickly adjust. In a car, you find yourself making last moment corrections – as you start making the right turn into the wrong lane, or head counterclockwise around the roundabout, or move to the rightmost lanes on the highway as you approach an exit. At least you can follow what other cars are doing. Eventually, with enough mental attention – and a loud, panicky co-pilot in the car – you get the habits down.

Thinking back on this experience, we realized we mastered left-side driving in three stages:

  1. Discomfort – always conscious of the difference, working hard to make sure you’re doing the right thing on the road;
  2. Hesitation – comfortable with the reversal, but long-time driving habits muddle your head every so often;
  3. Habit – reverse is the new normal; car scenes in American and French movies look a bit outré: why are they driving on the wrong side of the road?

It helps, of course, that you sit on the opposite side of the car from right-side driving countries, though we regularly try to get behind the wheel by mistakenly opening the passenger door. Pity the poor drivers of Myanmar (Burma) who have been relegated to British-configured cars though they drive on the right side of the road. Without a good co-pilot, you cannot make a left turn safely against oncoming traffic.

And then there’s the turn signal, which is where the windshield wiper control had been and vice versa. For quite a while, we would signal a turn with the swish-swash of the wipers, and clear off the rain drops with the turn signal. When they see this, we figure, locals are helpfully alerted they’re dealing with a driver not from these parts.

Where to halt on the far left for a right hand turn

Where to halt on the far left for a right hand turn

In Melbourne, there is a special situation to master as well: right turns from the far left lane. The city’s tram system offers extraordinary service around the city and deep into the suburbs. But on the crowded streets of the CBD (central business district), traffic control requires one special maneuver. The problem is how to enable a right turn across tram rails and oncoming traffic when there is no room for a right turn lane and you don’t want automobiles to halt in the path of the trams.

Wait for it! Taxi awaits go ahead from right turn signal while white car proceeds straight

Wait for it! Taxi awaits go ahead from right turn signal while white car proceeds straight

The solution here is a virtual right turn lane at the far left of the intersection. When the light turns green, you pull over to the far left as if you were preparing to block cross-traffic. This position allows cars in the lanes behind you to continue straight ahead without blockage.

Queuing up on the far left to make the right turn

Queuing up on the far left to make the right turn

When the red light stops cars behind you, the large “hook right” signal alerts you to make the wide right turn…quickly, before the cross-traffic gets the go-ahead.

Yes, it takes a bit of mental adjustment, and faith in the system, but at least you don’t get rammed by a tram.

After all this acclimating to reverse motoring for eight months, we just came back to the States. You would think that years of right-side driving would kick back in again quickly, but we found ourselves reliving the discomfort and hesitation stages all over again.

Here we were once more, on foot, looking right, not left to cross the street. And once again, in the car, signaling a turn with sweeping wipers and clearing raindrops with the turn signal.

(Also, for more pictures from Australia, CLICK HERE to view the slideshow at the end of the Australia itinerary page.)

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