Driving on the Left Side of the Road

DSCF1801aI bought a new (to me) car not too long ago, and driving it has been an interesting experience. It’s a ’93 Toyota Corona with a solid engine and a CD player with dynamic sound for Coldplay’s “A Head Full of Dreams” album, which was the first music I played in my new car.

Then, I wanted to name my car. I have been going with a Lord of the Rings theme, and my traveling companion, a stuffed kiwi bird, is named Frodo. But since the car is black, the only things coming to mind were the Black Gate, Mordor and Mt. Doom.

That just wouldn’t do.

Instead, I named my car Pippin.

Pippin has been helping me learn the rules of the road when driving on the left side instead of the right side of the road as I learned to do many years ago in driver’s education. The driver’s seat is on the right side of the car. The accelerator and the brake are in the same positions as they are in the United States (a great advantage). The gear shift is in the console to the left of the driver’s seat. There are two levers on either side of the steering wheel: windshield wipers and back window wipers control on the left, turn signal on the right. In my Ford Taurus, my American car, the windshield wiper control and the turn signal were on the left with the gear shift on the right.

Upon first starting up the car after buying it, I correctly used my left hand to reach down and shift to reverse. But when I approached my first Give Way (which is a cross between a stop sign and a yield sign; stopping is not necessary, but it’s a good practice), I moved my left foot looking for the clutch pedal, and my left hand searched for the gear shift as I was accustomed to driving the milk truck, which has a manual transmission, on the farm. There were a couple of times when I turned on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal.

But I turned on the radio and enjoyed the scenery and the drive home.

When I pulled up to the house, I braked and then reached up with my right hand to put my car into park. Before touching the lever, I realized what I’d done and held both hands up, palms up. What? What am I doing? Then I realized I needed to reach down to put the car into park.

Every so often, I’ll still turn on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal. Whoever is riding with me knows what’s going on and just laughs.

A few Kiwis have given me some helpful tips, such as “Give way to anyone who can hit you on your side,” (this helps me remember which way to look), and, “Make sure you’re close to the yellow line.”

“A couple of scares, and you’ll be all right,” the farm’s handyman said.

(Actually, it’d hopefully be “all left.”)

It’s easier than I thought it would be to stay on the left side of the road, especially when thinking about staying on the side of the yellow line, something I am used to doing.

But there are habits that have been hard to break. I keep looking in the driver’s side mirror when turning right to make sure there is no one behind me. I have figured out this is because of the necessity of looking in that mirror when changing back to the right hand lane on the interstate. I should only be looking ahead to see if there is any incoming traffic, but I continually find myself adding a check in the driver’s side mirror to make sure there is no one who is trying to pass me on the right or to make sure that I’m not cutting someone off.

Overall, driving on the left side has not been too bad — at least, in the country. The city is something else entirely. Driving in Christchurch and trying to follow street signs is like trying to find a spot on stainless steel–they’re just not there to follow. I’ll drive down a street and reach a major intersection, search frantically for the sign designating the name of the street and then find that there is no sign. The road signs that do exist are dark blue with a white font, and they are hard to see.

Sometimes, I’ll turn onto the street because it looks like it could be the one I’m looking for, but there’s no way of telling that I’m correct until a couple of blocks down the road when there happens to be a sign next to a bike path. I’ve even had a couple of trips where I turned off of the road because I thought I was following the incorrect route, only to find as I sat in the turn lane that I actually was following the correct road in the first place. The intersection where I was turning had signs, but they were three blocks too late. I experienced similar problems in Auckland as I was walking around. There would be intersections where street signs didn’t exist, and I would need to consult my phone to see where I was.

Luckily, Christchurch is quiet, and the City Centre is nothing like city centers in the United States. There are no skyscrapers, nothing that really says to an American, “This is the City Centre.” Part of this is due to the earthquake from a few years back that destroyed much of the city. This quiet means the streets are mostly quiet, as well, helping me become accustomed to driving there. This is good–I have to think twice about which side of the lane I need to drive into when going into shopping centre parking lots, and once when waiting at a red light to turn right, I looked to the right hand lane to find vehicles coming at me and was startled.

“Oh no, I’m turning onto a one-way street!”

But it was all right, I was just looking to the wrong lane out of habit.

There are so many beautiful routes here, and at times, I wish I could mount a Go-Pro camera on the hood for some videos of the drive. Rocks scrape the sky and mist drowns the hills. It truly is Middle Earth. Having a car and learning to drive on the left side of the road has been a freeing aspect of living here, allowing me to explore and visit and overall, just enjoy the view as Pippin and I travel together.


4 thoughts on “Driving on the Left Side of the Road

  1. The single thing that helped me most was something my sister-in-law told me when we visited Australia and NZ last fall, “Keep your body in the middle [of the road].” I’d repeat that to myself when turning onto a new road, in parking lots, anywhere I got confused for a moment. The hardest thing for me was roundabouts — I felt very accomplished when I learned to automatically check for traffic in the “right” direction!

    1. I haven’t had as many problems with roundabouts as I thought I would. The first one I traveled on, someone was with me, so that helped, and he talked me through it. It’ll be interesting how ingrained these new habits will be when I return to right-side-of-the-road country!

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