No, Left-Hand-Side Driving on Foreign Roads is Not Scary…

“I don’t scare easily, but nothing puts the fear of God in me like left-hand-side driving on foreign roads” is what Christopher Elliott wrote in this article for Travelers United, which is an advocacy membership organization that represents all travelers. “On a recent visit to Bermuda, while I was taking a pre-dawn walk along a winding road, I nearly collided with a swarm of scooters. Turns out I was facing the wrong direction. In London, despite signs on the pavement warning tourists and absent-minded pedestrians to ‘look right,’ I was almost run over by a bus. I’ve never tried to rent a car there. I don’t dare.”

No, Left-Hand-Side Driving on Foreign Roads is Not Scary…

As a citizen of the United States, I am accustomed to driving on the right side of the road…

…so does that mean that those who drive on the left side of the road drive on the wrong side of the road? Of course not — but that can cause potential discomfort to a person who has never driven on the opposite side of the road to what he or she is used to in his or her native country.

I will never forget the anticipation and trepidation of driving on the left side of the road for the first time: I was traveling as a passenger in the business class cabin seated upstairs on a Boeing 747-400 aircraft operated by Qantas Airways; and during the flight which lasted for approximately 14 hours — interrupted by a nap which lasted 30 minutes at the most; and that is not counting no sleep on two previous flights — I frankly was quite nervous about driving on the left side of the road.

Fortunately, I am experienced with driving a vehicle with manual transmission; but I am not left-handed. How will I do shifting with my left hand? Is everything in reverse to what I am accustomed — the gears, the pedals, the light and windshield wiper control stalks?

Despite the fact that approximately 90 percent of the total road distance in the world carries traffic on the right side of the road, I have since driven in at least eleven countries where driving on the left side of the road is compulsory; and I have never been involved in an accident — unless you count that stupid pothole I encountered on highway R76 in South Africa on my way to Lesotho.

Every time I return to the United States after visiting a country where people drive on the left side of the road, I am always asked how I do it. It is not difficult, really — but I thought I would relay my observations and experiences to you if you have had little to no experience driving on the opposite side of the road in a different country.

Count on Driving a Vehicle Equipped With a Manual Transmission

With the lone exceptions of within the United States and Oman, every car I have ever rented was equipped with a manual transmission; so be prepared to drive using a stick shift when renting a car in another country. It just so happens that I prefer driving a vehicle with a stick shift; so I have never thought to ask if I could rent a car with an automatic transmission instead — but you probably could do so if you are so inclined. You might pay more for a vehicle equipped with a manual transmission, however.

Everything IS Opposite — Except…

When you get into a car in a country where you are supposed to drive on the side of the road opposite of what you are used to driving in your home country, the most obvious observation to you will be that the steering wheel is on the “wrong” side of the car — especially when you attempt to enter the car on the same side as you typically would in the country where you are based.

The stick shift will indeed be in the center of the vehicle between the front seats for the driver and the passenger. The good news is that the shifting works exactly the same in cars where the steering wheel is on the left as well as cars where the steering wheel is on the right — but that is also the bad news. Shifting into first gear will be on the upper left of the gearbox; but if you are accustomed to shifting to first gear being closest to you while in the driver’s seat on the left side of the car using your right hand, you will need to get used to shifting to first gear being farthest away from you while in the driver’s seat on the right side of the car using your left hand. Again, do not fear — it is not that difficult to do; but it will feel strange at first.

The pedals are the same, no matter on which side of the road you drive: the clutch pedal is on the left; the brake pedal is in the middle; and the acceleration pedal to give gas to the car is on the right. Phew. That is a relief.

What used to befuddle me the most, however, are the stalks which control the lights and turn signals and windshield wipers, as they are on the opposite sides of the steering wheel. I turn on the lights or use the turn signals and the windshield wipers were activated. I turn on the windshield wipers and the lights or turn signals went on. Even worse is that once I became used to where the controls were located, I initially went through the same scenario once I returned home to use my vehicle. That does not happen to me anymore; but that should be the worst thing that could happen to me — or to you.

The Most Difficult Time Driving on the Opposite Side of the Road Can Be…

…when you are in a congested area with a lot of traffic and you are turning onto another street while manually shifting in a place where people seem to drive in a crazy and aggressive manner, as it can tend to potentially cause you to be nervous. You might start to overthink what you need to do, as you need to concentrate on which side of the road to drive as well as shift correctly — especially when drivers start honking their horns for you to move or get out of the way.

Arguably, it can be equally difficult remembering on which side of the road you should drive if you are on a desolate two-lane highway with a broken painted line dividing the road in the middle of nowhere — such as in the Outback in central Australia, for example — as there are few signs or little traffic to remind you on which side you should drive.

Take a split second to remember your basic driving skills and try to relax as you drive while still keeping acutely aware of what is going on around you. You are better off taking that split second for yourself than to needlessly commit an error which could possibly lead to an accident — or worse.

Feeling Homesick? Use Your Rear-View Mirror

car mirror keep left

The rear-view mirror in one of the cars I rented in South Africa had a reminder to “please keep left” — a reminder which I did not need. Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

Driving down the highway and observing other vehicles gives me the illusion that there are driverless cars escorting passengers around all over the place. It is a strange sight at first; but a quick look in the rear-view mirror where everything looks normal again can help.

Need Some Practice? Find a Quiet Area

If you believe you need some practice to get yourself better acclimated to driving on the opposite side of the road, ask to find a quiet place where you can practice — such as an empty parking lot, for example.

If you are located in a busy or congested area, perhaps take some time to adjust to the shifting positions of the gears of the stick shift — as well as acclimate yourself with the positions and functions of other controls — while the vehicle is stationary…

…but then again, you are reading an article written by a person who first learned how to drive a vehicle with a standard transmission in an empty parking lot late at night in Jericho, New York. My second outing driving a vehicle using a stick shift was on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway — something I would not particularly recommend to any novice.

Crossing Land Borders

I have never crossed a land border from one country to another — yet, anyway — where drivers are required to switch from one side of the road to another. I will hopefully experience this one day. Although there are some land border crossings where bridges or other devices automatically assist you in switching sides of the road, you will most likely have to stop at a land border crossing anyway to get your paperwork in order; so switching sides of the road on which to drive should not be difficult to achieve.

Exceptions

If you drive in the Bahamas, for example, you are required to drive on the left side of the road — but the steering wheel is also usually on the left side due to many of the cars being imported from the United States. This may seem even more bizarre than simply driving on the opposite side of the road — at least, it did to me when I was in the Bahamas several years ago. Thankfully, exceptions such as the Bahamas are rare around the world — but be aware that they do exist.

Summary

The aforementioned article by Christopher Elliott recalled one which I first wrote on March 17, 2015 as a Stupid Tip of the Day; so I thought I would revisit driving on the opposite side of the road for this article.

I have driven on the opposite side of the road in at least 11 countries; and believe it or not, it actually became second nature to me — so much so that at times I question myself because I no longer think about it.

Ironically, one of the scariest overall experiences was when I was driving on the right side of the road, as is the practice in Cairo — and I give eight tips on how to drive in Cairo and other parts of Egypt in this article.

As I have already mentioned, driving on the opposite side of the road really is not all that difficult if you take the extra care necessary while driving. Complacency is your enemy here; but then again, it should also be your enemy when driving in more familiar surroundings.

Please drive carefully — no matter on which side of the road you drive.

Out on the open road — more specifically, a divided highway — in Botswana. All photographs ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

30 thoughts on “No, Left-Hand-Side Driving on Foreign Roads is Not Scary…”

  1. TPOL says:

    I applaud your abilities. The one time I did so was horrible. I was too close to the left which didn’t end well.

  2. BBTBphile says:

    I’ve done it multiple times, and it’s not that bad. I do have to remind myself when making turns. There’s nothing scary about it.

  3. Aleks says:

    Try to drive in Panama city: there are no street signs and congession at peak hours. First time can me overhelming, but at least it’s on the right side.
    I don’t drive shift anymore and always rent automatic in foreign countries (with left- or right-sided traffic). Even in remote places such as Kruger park in South Africa I’ve rented auto with no issue. Just make sure that it is specified on your rental agreement.
    Automatic typically cost a bit more, but it’s less stress for left-sided driving countries.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Ironically, Aleks, I have driven in Panama City in Panama; but not Panama City in Florida…

      …and you are correct about no street signs and the congestion — especially Via Israel and Avenida Repùblica de Brasil, which were challenging to get through…

  4. Richard Shumann says:

    It’s not that scary! I have turned on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal many times when switching from driving on the right to driving on the left. I lived in Mozambique for five years, which drives on the left, and had a hard time backing up. In the US, I look over my right shoulder to see out the back. In Mozambique, I should look over me left, but I got confused and scraped my car a few times.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I have no idea how I avoided the car getting scraped up while driving in Mozambique, Richard Shumann — but someone did steal the external mirror on the passenger side overnight…

      http://thegate.boardingarea.com/review-mozguest-residence-in-maputo-mozambique/

      …and you are correct about the difficulty of backing up there.

  5. Phill says:

    I’ve done it three times, all in the same country: Turks & Caicos. Luckily, they are all about the automatic cars there… I already suck at manual so that added stress and I may not have gone for it the first time.

    Every time everything has gone smooth (so far) I will say driving on an island with no stop lights and a top legal speed of 40 MPH is a pretty good way to experience left side road driving. I just kept running an inner monologue of stay on the left, it worked pretty well. It also the only time I’ve ever driven a neon pink and neon blue car both of which were awesome!

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I have never been there, Phill — but I would have to agree with you about those conditions being as close to ideal as possible.

      Fun fact: the second time I have ever driven a car equipped with manual transmission was on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York during rush hour.

      That is not for the faint of heart; but thankfully I was successful…

  6. Johann says:

    We have driven in over a half dozen countries (including UK, Ireland, South Africa and Australia) and never had a problem finding an automatic to rent. Also, I think this is a mis-print : “You might pay more for a vehicle equipped with a manual transmission.” Because manual transmission cars outside the US are almost always cheaper. Lastly, we have experienced the turn indicators/wipers on both sides of the steering column. I believe this has to do with a factory that makes a model in both left and right hand drive, but to save cost, uses the same steering column for both.

  7. Sven says:

    I fully agree with the article. I’ve also had the impression that it’s not as bad as it sounds at first. Funnily I also had my biggest problems with turn signals and windshield wipers …and when I drove after a longer stop on the road again and there was no traffic. A few times I found myself on the wrong side of the road then for a few seconds.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Confusing the turn signals and windshield wipers was more of a problem for me after I returned to the United States, Sven.

      Thankfully, that was only momentary…

      1. Sven says:

        I had it in both directions a few times for a while, but generally I think it’s pretty easy to adjust as you pointed out in your post. What I think is essential for me though is a reliable GPS device (or the phone with Google maps). I would definitely have had more difficulties when I had to rely mainly on direction signs (especially when some of them were only in Thai)

        1. Brian Cohen says:

          That is a good point, Sven.

          Even more frustrating to me is when the road signs are arbitrarily sometimes offered in English and sometimes not — as was the case in Egypt, for example.

  8. StogieGuy7 says:

    I did this in Japan and had a lot of fun. However, I chickened out and asked for an automatic transmission. The one challenge that I had (and perhaps you can comment on) involved backing up when seated on the right. That tiny Honda I had felt like an aircraft carrier when I had to back it into a spot from the “wrong side of the car”! I echo your sentiments about the turn signals and windshield wipers, every time I went to signal, I’d turn the wipers on……

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Interestingly, StogieGuy7, I never thought about backing up when seated on the right, as the experience was really no different for me; but now that I think about it, I can see why you felt the way you did.

      I never drove while in Japan because of the traffic; the tolls; and the excellent mass transit system as an alternative.

      1. StogieGuy7 says:

        I was there for a month on business and there was this one little resort town that we needed to visit that did not have access to any of the train lines. My colleague thought that we should use taxis all over town, but I insisted on renting a care – to be adventurous!

        To her amazement, it all worked out fine….

        1. Brian Cohen says:

          Some people do get really nervous about driving, StogieGuy7 — even if the driving conditions are optimal — or perhaps she wanted to save money.

          In my case, renting a car really made no sense — but I would not have hesitated to do so otherwise…

  9. Johann says:

    Not posting my earlier comment? Was there an issue with what I said? Feel free to email me. You’re disseminating somewhat false information as it stands.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      For future reference, Johann, I never censor comments at The Gate other than “spam”; so please feel free to comment any time you like — and I appreciate the thoughts you posted. I will read over what I wrote because vehicles equipped with manual transmission are usually less expensive to rent than vehicles equipped with automatic transmission.

      Sometimes the anti-spam software can be a little aggressive…

  10. Johann says:

    nm…just posted

  11. Sorab says:

    “Fortunately, I am experienced with driving a vehicle with manual transmission; but I am not left-handed. How will I do shifting with my left hand?”

    Its funny – I had the exact opposite reaction. I grew up in India (left hand traffic) and learnt driving on a manual car, so I was used to changing gears with my left hand. When I first drove a manual car in a country with right hand traffic, I had a tough time changing gears with my right hand (and I’m right-handed). I would constantly end up in 3rd gear when I wanted to engage 1st. I also had a hard time putting the car in reverse gear. It took me a couple of days to finally get a hang of it.

    I guess it has less to do with whether you’re right-handed or left-handed, but more about which style (changing gear with left/right hand) you’re more familiar with.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      You are probably right, Sorab.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    I would counter, and say that yes, left-hand-side driving on foreign roads is scary. Especially when it is your first time.

    After experiencing this myself on a recent trip, the ability to adapt from right-hand and left-hand driving is very different from person to person.

    My husband found it nearly impossible to stay inside the lane. Instead the car was either halfway on the shoulder or partially in another lane. This made our first trip on a multi-lane highway extremely frightening.

    I seemed to adapt much better and ended up doing most of the driving. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I was expecting (I credit this to years of backseat driving in the passenger seat). I did have to keep reminding myself to move the car closer to the right side of the lane, and I probably did almost side-swipe a few people with the left-side of the car. Same issues with confusing the blinkers and the windshield wipers (and one incident of the reverse when I was back home in my own car on a rainy day). I got into the wrong side of the car once or twice.

    My biggest and most dangerous problem was pulling out onto a road with oncoming traffic. You are used to being able to make a right turn when you see a car approaching from the right (because they are normally on the other side of the road). But with left-hand driving you have to remember that you have to first cross their side of the road before you can get to the side you are trying to get to. That almost ended badly a few times.

    I’ve never had so many people honk at me in my life than I did on this trip! Fortunately, we (and the rental car) survived the trip unscathed.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I am thrilled that you survived the trip unscathed, Elizabeth.

      Have you since driven on the left side of the road in a country where it is required — or, at least, would you consider doing it again if you have the opportunity?

  13. Fester says:

    Brian, I really enjoy your articles. It is refreshing to get travel-related information that’s not just about flying in first or business. Keep it going. I am an airline brat (Dad worked 40 years for Northeast and Delta) and we spent one whole month every summer driving around the great USofA. Dad said, “you can’t see America from 35,000 feet.” He’s right about that. I spent my childhood flying first class. I can count on one hand the times I flew economy and back then economy was cool. Those were the days of real air travel. Royal and Medallion Service on Delta was awesome! His career in aviation inspired my own career in aviation. We were taught at a young age navigation and map reading by planning our trip routing to never use the same roads (unless necessary), not just interstates to get from A to B but side roads too, and stopping at roadside attractions. All year long we collected cans, bottles, paper, cardboard for recycling to earn the money to pay for the trip and give us kids spending money. So, needless to say, your articles about other travel information are nostalgic to me and bring back happy memories. Thanks!

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      You have no idea how much your comment means to me, Fester. Thank you so much!

      I completely agree with your father — which is why during the last quarter of 2017, I drove in literally 25 states over a period of fewer than three weeks — and I literally have hundreds of photographs to share in the articles which I plan on writing documenting my trip; so please stay tuned…

  14. Levy Flight says:

    “No, Left-Hand-Side Driving on Foreign Roads is Not Scary…” unless you are driving in France, the US or ….

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I have recently seen some videos on YouTube where that scenario actually occurred, Levy Flight — especially on major divided highways.

      That is indeed scary — especially watching vehicles moving in the correct direction attempting to avoid them…

  15. Levy Flight says:

    Ok, top tip: if confused for a moment remember that the steering wheel is at the side of car that is to the center of the road.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      That good tip may actually be so obvious that it is easy to overlook, Levy Flight.

      Thank you.

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