When Left is Right and Right is Wrong

Staying Sane on the Other Side of the Road

By Dave Fox
County Kildare, Ireland

Driving out of Limerick, headed west toward Tralee, I am greeted by a sign: “In the last four years, 86 people have been killed on the roads in County Kildare.”

“Welcome to County Kildare” would have been more pleasant, but I’m getting the hang of things. In the last couple of hours, since picking up my rental car at Dublin’s airport, I’ve decided driving on what Americans like to call “the wrong side of the road” isn’t so hard.

We named our rental car “Seamus.” (Photo by Rhonda Pelikan.)

I’ve been on this side of the road before – in 1976. I was seven. My brother was four. We had just moved to England for a year. We shrieked with glee from the back of our bright orange family station wagon as our mom, in her first ever left-side driving lesson, bounced us up onto the sidewalk. Her highly qualified instructor – our dad, who had mastered left-hand driving 48 hours earlier – was yelling at Steve and me to quit giggling. This freaked our mom out, which made us giggle harder.

But if you don’t have hyperactive monsters like me and my little brother in the back seat, driving on the left isn’t bad. Follow a few simple guidelines, and you’ll survive with your sanity, limbs, and side-view mirrors intact.

Familiarize yourself with your car before you start the engine. Pedals are lined up as you’d expect: clutch, gas, and brake, from left to right. But just about everything else is flip-flopped. The steering wheel is on what would be the passenger side in America. Fortunately, so are the pedals. This is so the driver is closest to the center lane, just like at home.

Since you’re driving on the other side of the car, you shift with your left hand. If this scares you, pay the extortion money rental companies charge for an automatic.

You will look left to check your rear-view mirror. After years of looking right, this is disconcerting. Look over your left shoulder when backing up, and use your left hand to fiddle with the radio. Once you’ve goofed a few times, you’ll appreciate what life is like for people with dyslexia.

The turn-signal switch is on the left side of the steering wheel and the windshield wiper control is on the right. I forgot this a lot and ended up with the cleanest windshield in Ireland.

Once you’re in a lane, staying in it is no problem. Turning corners is what requires thought. Swing wide when turning right, like you do for a left turn in the US. If you turn right on red, you will likely be fined or severely injured. (Turning left on red is also illegal.)

Follow other drivers and hope they’re not confused foreigners like you. If you have a passenger, have him or her navigate while you focus on the traffic.

One thing the Irish and British have mastered is the “roundabout.” These traffic circles, daunting at first, are actually marvelous alternatives to traffic lights. People in the circle have right of way over those waiting to enter. Roads leaving the circles are generally well-marked, but if you miss a turn, just do another lap. If you take the wrong exit in a large town, you can often make a safe and legal U-turn (or do they call it an O-turn?) at the next roundabout.

Your instincts will tell you to turn right into the roundabout. Ignore your instincts. Follow the herd, turn left, and go clockwise.

On Ireland’s few divided highways, the fast lane is on the right and exits are left. But Ireland’s charm lies in the countryside.

Outside urban areas, you’ll find a lot of one-and-a-half lane highways: three-quarters of a lane for traffic in each direction. These roads are where your driving experience becomes an adrenaline-packed adventure.

Speed limits there seem to be merely vague guidelines. Slow drivers – and I’m talking really slow drivers – lots of them – will give you a headache. Pass on the left, but be aware that on a busy day, it could be a long time before you find a straight stretch of road with no oncoming traffic. If you hold your breath, you will probably avoid scraping the picturesque, accident-waiting-to-happen stone walls that snake along the roadside.

Too-fast drivers are another problem. They come in two breeds: people behind you and people coming toward you.

The Irish are renowned for their friendliness, but when they drive, they are as evil as us Americans. If you’ve ever driven a compact car in an ice storm and had a dork in a 4-wheel-drive SUV roar up behind you, you know what I’m talking about.

If someone is tailgating, you have two options: speed up or ignore them. There are risks either way. If you ignore them, you risk having them fly into an American-style road rage and ramming you. But in a week of scientific study, I determined the odds of an Irishman doing this are slight. If you speed up, on the other hand, there is a good chance you will sideswipe the aforementioned stone wall or kill a sheep. (If you have no sympathy for sheep, keep in mind the animal will likely leave a messy imprint on the front of your rental car, which will be embarrassing and expensive to explain when returning it.)

Oncoming drivers usually slow down when passing on narrow roads. But there are a few who expect you to swerve off and avoid them. My advice: Do what they expect. Slamming on the brakes for oncoming traffic might irk the guy behind you, but the alternative is … have I mentioned the stone walls?

I got the hang of things in less than an hour. The cardinal rule is to follow other drivers and be sure the center lane is always on your right. I only ended up on the wrong side of the road twice: once on day six of my trip when I got complacent and stopped concentrating, and once the next week – jetlagged and home in America.

Published on Friday, March 1, 2002

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