Right or Left, Which is Best? Tiny Samoa Switches Sides
By Andy Bannister
In these days of increasing conformity in terms of nearly everything to do with motoring and highway safety it’s interesting that one of the most fundamental issues of all – which side of the road to drive on – still divides roughly two-thirds of the world from the other third.
This has always been a point of international contention. When motor cars were still a relative rarity, it was possible for countries to change sides quite easily – mostly, it has to be said, from driving on the left to driving on the right – but few have done so in recent times.
Full marks for bravery, then, to the tiny country of Samoa in the South Pacific, which has just secured a footnote in history by enacting a switch in the other direction, from right to left, bringing it into line with the bigger powers in the region, particularly Australia and New Zealand.
The rationale for the change as far as the local populace are concerned is the prospect of importing cheap right-hand-drive cars from its larger neighbours.
Despite this apparent benefit, opinion among the people of the two main islands which make up Samoa is – perhaps unsurprisingly – not by any means universally in favour, and some commentators have been predicting traffic chaos and accidents galore. A two-day holiday and drinking ban was put in place to coincide with this week’s change over.
With only 20,000 motorists and a tiny road network the Samoans at least don’t have as much of a logistical nightmare as most countries would face – imagine changing every single road sign, redesigning every highway junction and so on.
Worse still, though, people in different countries are conditoned from their earliest years to look a certain way first when crossing roads, so the safety of pedestrians is seriously at risk.
To understand why this all came about requires a short history lesson. Samoa (not to be confused with nearby American Samoa, which still drives on the right) was a German colony in those long-ago days before World War One when the motor car first came into existence. The Germans were driven out long ago but left the legacy of driving on the left to the Samoans, in line with the practice in most of the European continent.
Rules of the road, in fact, long pre-date the invention of the motor car in most countries – the practice of driving horse-drawn vehicles on the right (reversing an earlier convention associated with the hated former aristocracy) was enthusiastically enforced in revolutionary France and then spread to many of the countries the French occupied during the turbulent Napoleonic period. After America’s war of independence it, too, gradually shifted to the right hand rule for horse-drawn traffic.
The biggest influence in favour of driving on the left, by contrast, has been the former British empire, which at its height covered a quarter of the world’s surface. As well as the United Kingdom itself, many once British-run territories have retained left side driving, including India, Pakistan, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, several Caribbean islands, and so on.
The ex-imperial rule doesn’t always apply, though. Canada had different regulations in different provinces depending on whether British or French influence was strongest, but due to the proximity of its great southern neighbour, the United States, the whole country gradually changed to driving on the right, with the last bit to switch being Newfoundland in the late 1940s.
Egypt, despite a long British occupation, retained right hand driving throughout, while some of the UK’s former colonies like Nigeria and Ghana switched to the right after independence to signify a new beginning.
Confusingly, some former colonial possessions of other European powers had practices at odds with the “mother country”. One-time Dutch colonies like Indonesia and Suriname still drive on the left, as does the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique.
In Europe itself, the United Kingdom and associated territories such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have always driven on the left. Three independent countries once governed by Britain also retain this practice – Ireland, Cyprus and Malta.
A number of other European countries started off agreeing with the British and then changed sides to come into line with neighbours with whom they shared a land border. The most celebrated change occurred in Sweden as late as 1967, but Italy and Portugal did the same in the 1920s, followed by Spain (a country where there were regional differences, with some areas driving on one side and some on the other). The practice in other territories like Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia was forcibly changed as a result of wartime occupations in the 1930s.
Apart from Britain, the most celebrated advocate of left side driving is Japan, a country which happens to be a prolific car exporter. By changing their rule of the road, Samoans will also be able to import cheap used vehicles originally sold on the Japanese home market.
Of course, it is perfectly possible to use a car with a right hand steering wheel and controls in a country where the rule is to drive on the right. As a native of Britain I have to do this when driving my car on the European mainland. There are even some advantages (judging the edge of the road on tight hairpin bends when driving in the mountains is one example), but one major drawback is that overtaking large vehicle can be difficult because of poor visibility. Dealing with automatic ticket machines at car park barriers when driving solo also requires some athleticism through the passenger side window.
Some people struggle with the other alternative – hiring a foreign car with the steering on the wrong side. I and my fellow countrymen change gear with the left hand, and when driving abroad in a locally hired car it can be hard not to end up grappling with the door window winder by mistake, at least for the first few miles. Fortunately, the location of main controls like the accelerator, brake and clutch were standardised years ago.
To help ward off catastrophe when driving in a strange land, sticking a post-it note on the steering wheel saying something like “drive on the right” can be a good idea, especially when setting off on a quiet road, or as an aide-memoire at junctions. It soon becomes second nature though – at least that’s what Samoa’s government is no doubt hoping.
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