There isn’t a ‘right and wrong’ side of the road of course, only ‘right and left’. This map from a Wikipedia article shows countries with left- and right-hand traffic. Red is right and blue is left. Some countries like Sweden changed from one side to the other not too long ago. On September 3rd, 1967 known as Dagen H, Sweden switched from the left to the right so it was the same as other European countries. I imagine that must have been a confusing experience for the Swedes.
Left and right-hand drive cars
Right-hand-drive cars are designed for left-hand traffic and vice versa. That is pretty obvious. But what exactly are the differences and similarities? The drivers seat and steering wheel are obviously on opposite sides of the car. There are also similarities. The clutch, brake and accelerator pedals are in the same position for both types of cars. So the gas pedal is always on the right and operating the clutch is done with your left foot.
The shift pattern for manual transmissions are also the same. First gear is on left and the highest gears are on the right. The stalk for the turn indicator light is also the same for both types on the left side of the steering column / wheel.
Driving on the other side of the road
Here are some tips when you rent a car in a country with traffic that drives on the side of the road that you are not used to:
Pay the extra money for a car with an automatic transmission, even when you know how to drive a car with a manual transmission. When you’re only used to an automatic, this is not the best time to learn how to use a stick. Manual transmission is the standard type of transmission, especially for the smaller cars. Small cars with an automatic transmission are significantly more expensive than their manual counterparts. Shifting a manual transmission with your other hand will need some time to get used to.
Take it easy for the first few days
Don’t drive in a busy city for the first few days. When visiting a new place you haven’t been before, you don’t want to deal with driving on the other side of the road when you have to get used to a city, it’s streets, rules and busy traffic.
Follow someone else
When you get seriously confused in a traffic situation, follow the car in front of you, even if it is not the way you want to go. Unless it is another confused foreigner like you, of course. And it is not a matter of if you get confused but when and how often.
The voice in that little device stuck to your windshield will know where to go, even in foreign countries if you have the maps for it. Not having to use a paper map or pay attention to street signs is one less area you have to concentrate on.
Experience and your mental state
Especially for the fist few days, you’ll have to think about the side of the road you’re driving on all the time. It will probably take a week to get comfortable with this new driving situation and not having to think about it. If you’re doing the same thing for most of your life, you can’t expect your instincts to change overnight. It probably goes without saying that drinking and driving is never a good idea but driving a car on the wrong side of the road while intoxicated can throw in some new challenges, I imagine. Jet lag can also seriously impair your driving so watch out for that as well
Roundabouts or traffic circles are very common in Europe and very rare in North America. There is nothing particularly difficult about using them but driving on them clockwise in left-hand traffic can be a totally new experience. Just follow the signs, other traffic and remember that traffic on the roundabout has the right of way, unless posted otherwise. It happened to me a few times I was in the wrong lane for an exit so just making an extra full circle on the roundabout will get you where you need to go.
Emergency situations and your instincts
Beware of being in the middle of the road if there is no centerline. This is often the case on narrow country roads. When you suddenly see another vehicle coming towards you that is also in the middle of the road, you’ll act on your instincts in this emergency situation and steer towards the wrong side of the road. This actually happened when I was in Ireland last summer and another tourist came towards me. He went to the wrong side of the road which was an awkward situation. The same thing happened to me a few times as well but I fortunately caught my mistake after a few seconds.
Parked on the ‘right’ side of the road in Ireland. Be aware of your instincts and narrow roads without a centerline
Parallel parking also is a bit more difficult. Not being used to a right-hand-drive car, I found it difficult to look over my left shoulder when reversing. Because of that, it was a bit of a challenge to get close to the curb or not hitting it. Americans are often not used to parallel parking into tight spaces so this provides an additional challenge.
Getting in the car on the wrong side
This will happen to everyone, especially the first few days. It’s an odd experience to get in the car and see that the steering wheel is suddenly missing. It can be a bit embarrassing when there are other people around but it is mostly a comical experience for yourself. This still happened to me occasionally after a week.
Driving a left-hand-drive car in left-hand traffic and vice versa
My first experience with driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road was going from the Netherlands to the United Kingdom. When driving off the ferry in Hull, my world changed completely and not just because it was a foreign country. This was a left-hand-drive car and driving on the left posed a few new problems.
When passing a large vehicle like a truck, you usually can get close to the center line and look ahead of the vehicle in front of you. You obviously can’t do that in this situation. Even having a co-driver in the passenger seat will probably not be very useful. It often is best not to pass at all. However, when you slow down first and get farther away from the vehicle in front of you, you can usually see farther ahead. Sometimes, turns in the road will also provide a better opportunity to see what’s going on in the distance.
When you sit far away from the centerline of the road, driving on narrow roads can be tricky. Cruising down a country lane and a big truck suddenly appears when going around a corner, it is difficult to judge your position on the road. Going very close to the side of the road may still not allow enough room for passing. In this situation, it is often best to make a complete stop and let the other car go by first.
The beam pattern on headlights is usually lower towards the centerline of the road and higher on the berm/shoulder side. It was common to use black tape on headlights to block light for the higher side so low or dipped beam will not blind oncoming traffic. I wonder how that is done with today’s modern projector and high-intensity-discharge (HID) head lights.
If all else fails
Even when you pay attention and do everything right most of the time, you’ll make mistakes sooner or later. When you have foreign license plates on your car, other drivers hopefully will understand. And I imagine in countries like Great Britain and Ireland, the locals are used to tourists terrorizing their villages and country roads while driving on the wrong side of the road. In some of the more touristy areas, they will have signs reminding you what side you should on. The first picture in this thread was taken in Ireland last summer.
If you return to your country with traffic on the side of the road you’re used to, it also takes a little while to get back in your old driving habits. This depends on how long you have been driving on the other side of the road, of course.
Do you have any tips or experiences to share? Is there any important information missing or anything incorrect?