My trip to Ireland this week, was quite the adventure. Not least of which was the fact that I was still detoxing from my weeklong party in Pamplona, Spain. So out with the sangria, and in with the Guinness. Now, new sources of alcohol wouldn’t be the only thing I had to adjust to coming to Ireland. Driving in Ireland is an experience as well, as they like many of the former English-colonies around the world, drive on the left.
Having had the opportunity to spend a few months driving on the left while Rachel and I were living in Japan, I did have some experience with it. Not that it made it any easier trying to reverse just about every core driving instinct it I had once again. But 34% of the world’s population actually drives on the left side. So for those looking to visit one of the 64 left-lane driving countries of the world, here is a primer for you.
First: It is more disorienting than you think.
Actually driving in a different lane is the easy part. There are signs all over the rental car reminding you. The tough part is doing so from the passenger seat. For one, when driving down the road in the States you normally align yourself with the left side of the lane you are in. So, in this vehicle setup that would mean you’ve put your passenger off the side of the road. At least once every 30 minutes Rachel would have to let alert me to the fact that I was drifting to the other side of my lane.
Additionally, turning is all out of whack. Typically, you make very tight left turns (since you are adjacent to your own left tires) and swing wide right to avoid clipping your mirrors. Again when that is reversed, so is this process. Making a few initial left turns trying to get out of the rental car parking lot (using my default approach) I nearly put Rachel into a parking sign, a curb and a security fence. One of the cousins in our group even popped the tires on the left side of his rental by drifting too close to a curb driving around town. Yah, it’s hard to undo a lifetime of habits.
Even as a passenger, it feels *very* weird to be sitting in the driver seat and not have any control over where the car is going. Looking in the rear view mirror and seeing what you expect to be the *driver* of the car behind sound asleep is more than a little disconcerting. One day, my Uncle Tommy pulled up in a taxi and I literally thought he was driving the damn thing till I remembered we were in Ireland. Crazy.
And throw in trying to switch gears with your left hand, …forget about it. Yah, so while what you are doing with your feet is normal (assuming you can drive a manual transmission vehicle), what you are doing with your hands is *backwards*. Yep, true statement. Most of my first day driving in Ireland was spent turning on windshield wipers when I wanted to use my turn signal, and punching my right hand into the door (now next to me) while grasping for the stick shift (which was now on my other side).
Oh, and I won’t even broach the subject of trying to parallel park with your side view mirrors all reversed, or trying back up anywhere. It makes my head hurt thinking about it.
Second: The rules of the road are reversed as well.
This isn’t as challenging as the first part, but this is the part that can get you killed faster than anything. Knowing who has right of way, and how to navigate those roundabouts ahead of you, while still doing 40 mph, is like walking a tight rope in a circus. Falter for a moment and it all comes crashing down.
For starters, when you are on the intestate you pass on the right. Slower traffic stays on the left. Cars will merge in from your left as well. People on your left have right of way at intersections. However, most of the time you won’t have a true intersection, you’ll reach what is called a roundabout.
Roundabouts are the European version of the 4 way stop, except no one has to stop if the lane is clear. You just gotta know when it’s your turn and who has the priority. Despite what one would assume, roundabouts are *not* every other car like you would see at a 4 way stop. In Germany cars entering on your left *always* have right of way. You can wait at the roundabout all day for a break in the cars coming from your left, and no one has to let you in. That’s just the way it is.
The cool thing, though, is once you are in the roundabout, you don’t have to let anyone in either. You can expect to speed onto whatever exit you choose. Of course, in Ireland it is people coming from the right that have the priority. In the larger roundabouts there are actually inner and outer lanes of the roundabout to navigate depending on where you came from and where you expect to exit. The roundabouts in London were famously spoofed in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. That scene still makes me chuckle, “Kids, …Big Ben, Parliament” 🙂
Check out this animated graphic on how to properly navigate a roundabout in Ireland. Ready to give up yet?
Now, rules of the road aren’t just limited to cars. When walking across intersections you have to remember to look *right* first when crossing the street. There are even signs on the street themselves reminding you of this. Still, as much as I made an effort, it was almost impossible to not want to look left when stepping off the curb. In general, Rachel and I just made up for it by looking every *possible* direction (including up and down) before darting across traffic. Still it was very easy to accidently step out in front of a bus in left-lane countries, and many Americans do exactly that each year.
Third, and finally; No insurance will cover you driving in one of these countries.
You will *have* to buy the supplemental. Yes, despite whatever international coverage you have, nobody covers driving in rental car in a country that drives on the left. For all of the reasons mentioned above, it is just too much of a gamble.
I consider myself a fairly competent driver, with a good bit of international driving experience, and I still count it as a small miracle that I made it out of Ireland without so much as a ding on my rental car. The hardest part of the drive was actually driving to drop off the car at the end of the trip. We hit rush-hour in Dublin, and navigating through the maze of merging tour buses, lane-splitting bicycles and scurrying pedestrians was a master’s degree crash course in driving. Now at least Dublin isn’t filled with chaotic drivers, like, let’s say, driving in Korea. But it is a large city, and any large city can be tough to drive in.
I recall one of our fellow trainers renting a car with us in Yokosuka, Japan (which is also on the left). She rented the car, drove it off the lot, made one turn, crashed into a stop sign, made the next turn back into the parking lot and returned the car. No kidding.
With the aforementioned advice in mind, I’m sure you have reservations about attempting to drive in a left lane country. If so, …good. This is a healthy response. It’s the complacent drivers who don’t consider the consequences who get into the most trouble. Dealing with the stress of driving in a new town, with a transposed-stick shift, and dealing with reverse traffic laws is a recipe for disaster. Still, *most* of the time, you can pull it off. It’s like rubbing your stomach and patting your head, sure, but its *doable*.
Where things go south, is when you are confronted with a split second decision such as a sudden merge in traffic (did I mention the reversed blind spots?), or a soon-to-be-missed exit, or a high speed intersection. In the nanosecond you have to make a judgment call about driving, stress causes you to revert to muscle memory and what *feels* right. That is where you fail.
On our way into Enniscrone, Ireland after flying into Dublin, we ended up spending a few hours on some pretty rural roads. It was dark and rainy, and an Irish *rural* road is basically two lanes squished into 1.5 lanes. If another car comes the opposite way, you both have to lean out onto the shoulders to pass, hoping you don’t clip side mirrors. In our drive there was two or three such instances when a car coming my way would surprise me over a hill and I quickly had to make room. I tell ya, fighting the instinct to not pull the car *right* to make way for the oncoming vehicle was physically difficult.
You shouldn’t really have to *think* about how to drive. Your focus should be on interpreting traffic patterns around you, as well as identifying hazards and decision points ahead of you. If 30% of your brain is subjugated to sorting out what to do with your car, or even how to drive your car, the distraction can be detrimental. I compare it a lot to driving while texting. Yah, you think you’ve got it all covered, till, well, …you don’t.
Oh, and be careful, there are plenty more road hazards to deal with in Ireland than just oncoming traffic. But, hey, it’s Ireland.
But for those who willing to try it, the country of Ireland is an amazing place to see by car. The whole island is only 3.5 hours coast to coast, and there is a millennia of culture and things to see and experience in between. And, many of the coolest, and most remote, places are only reachable by car.
Head the warnings I’ve mentioned here and focus on following the driving patterns of the cars around you, and you should be fine. So whether it be Ireland, or England, or Australia, or even Japan don’t let the roads scare you off from making the most of a site seeing adventure and experiencing life, …life in the left lane.