Right Is Wrong: Driving on the other side of the road

As international destinations go, England or Australia aren’t a huge stretch for those of us from the US. We speak the language, the food contains about the same percentage of deep fried things, and you can still find The Simpsons on TV at least once a week. The one big stumbling block that doesn’t really come up until it’s staring you in the face is that in these countries, among many others, driving for an American is the equivalent of a psychological experiment.

You drive from the opposite side of the car, all turns and traffic flow are the mirror image of what you’re used to, and just in case that’s not enough to think about, all the speed and distance measurements are just different enough to make you think momentarily that you’ve lost all depth perception. The entire experience of your first attempt, from the moment you open the door, sit down, and go to put the key in only to realize you’re in the passenger seat, is the closest you can get to the feeling of driving drunk while dead sober.

My first time driving on the opposite side was in Sydney shortly after moving there, when I decided to rent a car over the Christmas holiday week. Because I made the reservation late I had to pick up the car from the airport, which meant after creeping my way out of the rental garage, I was immediately thrown onto the freeway. On the downside, this meant I was white-knuckling the steering wheel for a while due to my sudden complete lack of spacial sense; there was now too little car to my right, and far, far too much to my left. On the upside, I didn’t have to contend with navigating city streets straight away, which are problematic enough in the best of circumstances. By the end of the week, I had loosened my death grip on the steering wheel and was able to turn at intersections without suffering a panic attack.

Overall, driving on the other side of the road is simply a matter of paying attention and practice, but there are a few things that helped me get me out of the parking lot.

1) Take a nice, long moment when you first get in the car to get your bearings before you even turn the key. Every instinct you’re used to while driving is now backwards, so starting the process of remapping your brain while stationary will start you off with a bit more awareness. Having something or someone in the passenger seat will also help you remain aware that there’s now more car on that side.

2) Follow other cars. Letting someone else set the pace and timing removes those variables from all the things you have to think about. When you don’t have a car to follow, trust your instincts on your speed; speed limits are often proportionally equal for suburbs, main streets, and freeways, regardless of the units used to measure them. If you’ve been driving for any length of time, you’ll still recognize what’s too fast or too slow.

3) Do not start on a manual transmission. The tree still has the same positions, but the more comfortable you are with driving manual normally, the more it will frustrate you with your sudden relative clumsiness and gradually lead you to screaming at confused locals.

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