Driving On The “Wrong” Side Of The Road

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pirate-1400

Pirate Ship, Dumont Dunes

For Britons, Australians, Japanese, and the rest of us brought up to drive on the left hand side of the road, there’s the added dimension of having to drive on the “wrong” side of the road in America.

In reality, driving on the “wrong” side of the road isn’t as hard as it sounds, and within a surprisingly short amount of time you don’t really notice. This is especially true if you drive a lot on reasonably busy roads — you generally take subconscious cues from the cars in front of you anyway, and following them is natural in intersections and turns.

What seems to happen is that your brain simply swaps everything around at some point — with sometimes odd side-effects such as being unable to tell left from right (or, more commonly, swapping the two) only while driving. Typical symptoms of this include automatically turning right when someone tells you to turn left; this is exacerbated by the years of knowing that a turn across on-coming traffic is always a right turn, whereas here (of course) it’s a left turn. You can get around this to some extent by using the phrase “big turn” to mean left turn, and “little turn” to mean a right turn — it sounds odd and vaguely childish, but it works a lot better than trying to remember which is which while driving through busy traffic. You also have to train your passengers in this.

The main danger points for wrong-siders are when you’re turning into another street at an otherwise empty intersection, or entering a road from a parking lot. In these cases, if there’s no other traffic, you have to be careful not to drive onto the left side of the road. A related problem is that when you reach an intersection, you are likely to look the wrong way for traffic, and miss the cross-traffic because it’s coming from the “wrong” way. This can be lethal, so always look two or three times in both directions and try to suppress the urge to assume the street is empty because nothing is coming down it towards you — something probably is descending on you, just from the other direction. Another problem can be misjudging the center of the lane, i.e. driving on the wrong side of the lane. This happens when you start over-correcting because you’re used to being on the right hand side of the car. You’ll get it right with practice….

A few other tips:

  • If this is your first time driving on the “wrong” side of the road, try to drive a car with an automatic transmission. As one correspondent put it: “everything swaps from one side of the car to the other except the transmission stick. I found it was a lot easier to just have one less unfamiliar thing to do — shifting a manual transmission with the “wrong” hand — when I’m trying so hard just to keep my bearings.” In my own case I once almost opened the car door reaching for the stick shift on the wrong side; this is a fairly common experience.
  • When in doubt (and the “big turn / little turn” thing isn’t working), always remember that the driver is supposed to be towards the center of the road. This sounds obvious, but when you’re confused you need all the obviousness you can get….
  • Try to start your driving on the “wrong” side of the road on something like a freeway, where it’s relatively straight and you don’t have to make a lot of decisions about turning and which lane to turn from or in to. Starting on a small surface road in a busy city is a really bad idea — you’ll be facing on-coming traffic, endless intersections where you don’t know how to turn, and abusive motorists who really couldn’t care less that you’ve just stepped off the plane from London.
  • Remember to look both ways — several times — when crossing streets as a pedestrian. Traffic is alwayscoming at you from the “wrong” way, and it can take ages to look for cars coming at you from (say) the left when you’ve spent a lifetime looking to the right. The first time this happens to you — and it will happen to you — you’ll get a real shock because you just know there wasn’t any traffic coming….

 

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