Blow up your brain: drive on the left (or right)

Look right in Hong Kong because the cars come from the “wrong” way (courtesy Helga’s Lobster Stew at Flickr Creative Commons)I can’t tell you how pleased I was to find an article in the Telegraph about UK travelers and driving on the right, which of course for them is the “wrong” side of the road. 

Just goes to show that reversing years of motor vehicle operating training will pretty much cause your brain to explode.

One of the most difficult mental drills that I’ve ever tried was driving on the left, in Japan, in a stick-shift (manual) car. 

Remember, this means that the steering wheel and driver’s side are the opposite of what I’m used to, the turn signal and windshield wiper controls are swapped on the steering column (you can always tell a brand-new “opposite side driver” because when they come up to a turn, their wipers start going) and the stick-shift in a Japanese car is operated with the left hand.  I also have to shift gears with the “letter H shift pattern” in almost a mirror sequence to what I’m used to, steering a wheel that’s on the opposite side of the dashboard, remembering to look to the left for the rear-view mirror, all while trying not to hit anything. 

The act of making a turn across an intersection is terrifying, and yes, I’ve had a cranial burp mid-intersection and turned, out of long habit, directly into oncoming traffic because I drove into the lane that I was used to, on the “correct” side of the road.

Hey, I only did that with my boss in the front seat one time.  Much unprintable yelling by both driver and passenger.  It really makes one appreciate roundabouts, where drivers can circulate ad infinitum until they get their act together.

One of the keys to success in opposite-side driving, for me at least, is continuous chatter.  While driving in Japan (and during a short family trip to Ireland) either my husband or I would repeat the mantra, “Left, left, left. Stay to the left, left, left.”  Chant even louder when approaching an intersection, since the primal driving brain seems to take over at the worst possible time. 

Sainted Husband, who drove more than I did in Japan, found himself getting really screwed up when we stopped in Hawaii on vacation on our move back to the States; he’d worked so hard to retrain himself to be a Japanese driver, he could barely handle getting our rental car around Oahu.  I did a lot of chanting. 

The Travel Insider ran into many of the same issues in driving on the other side of the road, as did blogger Photo Matt.

The short Telegraph piece points to a British Airways/Avis Rental Cars joint Web site that offers handy driving guides for countries around the world. The info on driving in the USA was interesting to read as a US person; pretty straightforward, but good to be reminded that for visitors, not everything is self-evident (“It is not uncommon for you to have to pay for fuel (‘gas’) before you actually fill the fuel tank. If you fill the tank with less fuel than you originally thought, this will be refunded to you at the kiosk.”)

Yep, and we think a “boot” is a sort of shoe, not the trunk of a car.

On the other hand, while reading about driving in the UK, I was interested to learn that “It is also quite common to encounter horseriders on rural roads. These should be treated as a potential hazard, so expect the unexpected. Horses can be easily scared by noise and may panic around fast moving vehicles.”  Erm, OK.  For visitors to the US, the same cautions apply to the horse-drawn buggies that you’ll find in our Amish communities.

As residents in Japan, we had formal driving lessons to help re-train our brain.  I cannot imagine as a traveler just showing up to an “opposite side” country, renting a car and trying to figure it out on the spot. 

Save your poor brain cells and take the train or bus, or at least spend one heck of a lot of time driving around the rental car company parking lot before you venture out onto roads.

And bring that person to chant in the front seat….”left, left, left” or “right, right, right” as the situation requires.

Technorati tags: travel, driving on the left, driving on the right


  1. Chris August 5, 2009
  2. Tim August 12, 2009

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