Driving tests

Is it difficult to drive on the other side of the road?

It’ll be a mental challenge for you when you first get in a car and drive on the other side of the road, but your brain will adapt quickly. There are just a few pitfalls you need to be aware of.

The steering wheel is on the wrong side

It’s almost guaranteed that in a lapse of concentration you’ll walk to the wrong side of the car before remembering that the steering wheel is not there.

The gear lever is on the wrong side

While it’s unlikely you’ll drive a vehicle with a manual gearbox overseas (most rental cars are automatic), if you do, you’ll need to build that muscle memory of pushing the clutch in with your left foot but using a different hand to change the gears. It will feel weird at first.

With an automatic gearbox, you simply put it in Drive and go. The only time you’ll need to think about it, and the handbrake, are when you stop or reverse.

Note that the clutch, brake and accelerator remain in the same order regardless of which side of the car they are on.

How do you drive for the first time on the other side of the road?

When travelling to a country that drives on the other side of the road, there are several things that will mess with your mind and challenge your spatial awareness. Your first experience is also likely to be in a jetlagged or tired state.

It will be a different make and/or model of vehicle and you won’t necessarily be familiar with the layout of the controls such as the air conditioning and radio. Take a moment to make sure you know how to turn on the demisters, windscreen wipers, and indicators (they might be on the opposite side of the steering wheel). Adjust your mirrors correctly. The same strategy applies as when you drive on the right-hand side: you should hardly be able to see your vehicle at all in the side mirrors, and the rearview mirror should frame the rear window.

Check that you know what everything means on the dashboard. Is it in miles per hour vs kilometers per hour, for example.

When moving away, remember to signal for 3 seconds and look over your shoulder.

On the road

The most difficult thing to adjust is your spatial awareness of the vehicle. You will now have a large amount of vehicle on the opposite side to what you’re used to. Let’s say you’re now on the left-hand side of the car. When you first get in, you’ll have more car on the right than you are used to. Even though you’re driving on the right-hand side of the road, it’s highly likely you’ll be almost dropping your right-hand wheels onto the verge. The way to avoid this is to pick a point on your dashboard which seems to be where the centre line of the road would join when you’re looking through the window.

The centre line appears to touch the dashboard. Use this as a frame of reference

Now look as far ahead as you can. This will help you drive in a straight line rather than meandering in your lane.

Don’t attempt to overtake another vehicle until you’re comfortable that you have the right spatial awareness otherwise you risk getting too close.

Using your mirrors

At first, it will seem unnatural to look at the rear-view mirror because it’s the other side, but it’s best to use this to see what’s behind you rather than solely relying on your mirrors. Check your mirrors frequently.

What parts of driving are likely to be the most challenging?

Roundabouts

Driving the opposite way around a roundabout will feel counter-intuitive. Remember to indicate your intentions to help other drivers out; this also helps focus you on which direction you are going.

Parallel parking

Use the same logic as when parallel parking on the regular side of the road: reverse your vehicle until your rear wheel is level with their rear bumper, turn sharply into the space to around 45 degrees. Reverse until roughly your B pillar (the one between the front and rear door) is in line with the edge of the car in front, then start to turn the opposite way. Watch for the front corner of your vehicle so you don’t hit the car in front. To learn this technique, view parallel parking in the low-speed manoeuvring course.

Multi-storey car parks

Because these tend to be much narrower than roads, you’re more at risk of having a little scrape by getting too close to a pillar or a kerb. Take extra care on ramps.

Toll booths and petrol pumps

Anywhere that you have to get quite close to something will be challenging at first as you’re likely to stop too far away from them

Dangerous scenarios

From experience, the two most dangerous scenarios are:

  1. You’re driving on an unlaned rural road. Your concentration lapses and you will move back to the side of the road that you are most used to driving on because there are no lane lines to keep you on the correct side
  2. You return to your vehicle after a break (e.g. a meal or a sleep), and you will automatically pull out onto the wrong side of the road.

How can your passenger help?

Having a passenger means you have another set of eyes to help, plus someone that can remind you of which side to drive on. They can also assist with navigation and changing vehicle settings such as the air conditioning until you’re comfortable with that.

What about driving a left-hand drive car on the left-hand side of the road?

Some imported American and European vehicles are left-hand drive and are permitted to drive in the left lane. Some refuse collection trucks have the driver’s seat on the left so that the driver can line up the bin attachment at the kerbside.

Having the steering wheel on the left and driving on the left is much harder for the driver because our roads are set up with the assumption that the driver’s view of everything comes from the right-hand side of the car. That means potentially more blind spots at intersections where sight lines assume the driver is on the right. Overtaking on the open road becomes more hazardous because seeing past the vehicle in front means exposing half of your vehicle into oncoming traffic.

Are there any advantages of driving a left-hand drive vehicle on the left-hand side of the road?

We already mentioned that for refuse collection truck drivers it’s easier for them to line up with the kerb. The same applies with cars: it’s slightly easier to park against a left-hand kerb.

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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

Posted in Advice
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