The voice on our car radio announced, “A local man died Saturday in a traffic collision. The driver of the oncoming vehicle was arrested for causing death by dangerous driving. He was traveling on the wrong side of the road.”
My husband and I looked at each other in horror. It was our first day in England. We were in the car, driving on the left side of the road. We had, pardon the expression, been down this road before.
In Ireland: A One-Week Itinerary, I recounted the time we accidentally pulled onto the wrong side of the street:
As we merrily drove along oblivious to our mistake, we almost collided with an industrial truck. I am proud to say that my almost-last thought was selfless. I felt remorse that we were going to kill the guy in the truck. He was going to die with us, and it was all our fault. Luckily, he was adept at dealing with idiot American drivers, and he expertly swerved at the last minute and avoided us. He didn’t even honk. Such nice people, the Irish.
We vowed that, this time, we would do it right. This time, we wouldn’t almost kill anyone. Here are my suggested tips for driving on the left:
1. Don’t be lazy. Figure out who drives on the left side.
One third of the world’s population drives on the left side of the road. The list of countries includes Great Britain, Ireland, India, Japan, Australia, Thailand, and many others. Do an internet search before you go.
2. Think long and hard about whether you are up to the task.
Most of us don’t need to think about how to drive. Yes, we must be aware of our surroundings when we aren’t talking on the phone, texting, applying make-up, or yelling at kids in the backseat. However, we don’t usually focus on the step-by-step act of driving itself, because muscle memory takes over. When you are driving on a different side of the road, you must concentrate on learning how to drive all over again.
3. If you are not comfortable driving a manual, spend the extra money for an automatic.
Many European rental cars are manual (stick shift) instead of automatic. This is a problem for Americans, many of whom have never learned to drive a stick shift. You can find an automatic, but you will pay dearly for it. Even if you reserve an automatic, the car rental company may not have one available upon your arrival. Wait until one is available, or seek out another rental car company. Bottom line: You don’t want to learn how to drive a manual while also learning how to drive on the left side of the road.
4. Understand that things are going to look a little different in your car.
Surprise! The steering wheel is on the right side of the car! I know—mind blown. This also means that your stick shift will be operated by your left hand. On the bright side, the clutch, brake and gas pedals will be in the same order for your feet. Yay!
5. Appoint a “stay on the left side” commander-in-chief.
This was my job. My husband drove, and I told him to stay on the left side of the road. For instance, when I gave him directions, I would say, “Make the next right turn while staying on the left side of the road.” Or, “You are going to turn left while staying on the left side of the road.” By giving the passenger a fancy title, he or she will be emotionally invested in the project.
6. Get a teeny-tiny car for teeny-tiny roads.
In both England and Ireland, we drove on the smallest country roads imaginable. The Irish drivers slowed down and honked around one-lane, blind curves, which was helpful. The British drove at full speed, at night, in the rain, with no indication they were headed our way along one-lane, blind curves.
I am certain the British knew what they were doing, and are excellent drivers. They miscalculated if they thought we knew how to cope with this situation. Why? Because when Americans see a car barreling towards us at full speed with no notice, the hard-wired, survival instinct in our brains is to swerve right. Nonetheless, renting the smallest car available will assist you in maneuvering through these stressful times.
7. The “stay on the left” commander-in-chief should learn all the road signs.
The amount and variation of road signs in England were astounding. I spent time learning them so that the driver could concentrate on staying left. My favorite: