Monday, September 7, 2009

Right or left?

The left (blue) and right (red) worlds. But what type of left-right battle? Driving, of course. Image Wikipedia.

I was intrigued to read a BBC report regarding Samoa switching to driving on the left, having driven previously on the right. It's one of those not important but critical distinctions, I think, in that it doesn't matter which side you drive on, as long as everyone does the same. Having driven on both the left and right, as per the local road rules, and in Malta* as well as occasionally (briefly) on the wrong side of the road when not concentrating during international travel, I (mostly) feel comfortable with both. Claims for one being technically or ergonomically superior or inferior I think are bull, but as that's rather lacking in detail I'll ask my car ergonomicist and report back. Meanwhile...

It's also a good benchmark of international insularity. Anyone in a country that drives on the left (the minority) is aware that the majority drive on the right, but know it's possible to do either. Many used to driving on the right regard driving on the left as an unnecessary challenge to their international experience, and one that should be abolished. In other words, it's an example of the benefits of different options, rather than a monoculture - or diversity.

What makes Samoa interesting here, as they are switching from a majority preference to the minority one - against the odds, and according to the BBC the first country to attempt the change since the 1970s. Here there is an economic reason offered, to use second-hand cars from Australia, Japan and New Zealand, three of the strongest, industrialised democracies in the greater Asia-Pacific. It will be interesting to see how it pans out. Certainly driving a car designed for the other 'hand' in any country isn't much fun.

Wikipedia offers the listing of which preference countries have today; interestingly the Canadians preference for the right would at first glace seem to be one of the examples of the effect of the proximity of the USA in comparison to the other members of the old British Empire countries (- Australia, India, Pakistan, South Africa and New Zealand all still preferring the left) but, according to the Wiki link was resolving a very un-Canadian muddle. Newfoundland was an exception then, too. The oddest factor I ever observed in Canada was in Victoria, BC, whose somewhat over-dedication to Empire involved having London type Routemaster buses with the exit platform facing into the traffic - an excellent effort for tourist culling.

The history of the 'rule of the road' as it's usually known is fascinating (as in the Wiki link above) encapsulating a lot of social history, commerce, muddling as well as technical factors, the last usually being the only one generally considered in passing. Then there's the preferences (and effects) of mounting a horse, boarding an aircraft and the side bicycles chains are fitted.

I'm sure we'll return to this topic. In the meantime, remember: Look both ways when crossing.


* 'The British drive on the left, the Americans drive on the right, and the Maltese drive in the shade.'

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