Thursday, May 5, 2016

Driving on the Left

No doubt, one of the biggest differences we faced when getting settled in Australia was learning to drive on the left side of the road. It was incredibly unsettling. You don't realize how instinctive your traffic checking habits are. You know where the opposing traffic is coming from and you guard that side of your car. But when the traffic is coming from the other way, you are constantly checking in ALL directions, even the places where traffic won't be. For weeks I kept looking over my right shoulder when I would cross traffic (to turn *right*), because I thought I was going to get T-boned--and DIE. I'm so used to cars driving on that side of the road I couldn't trust there wasn't a car over there. Then other times when entering the road, I would forget to actually check the traffic on the right side. I'm still alive and have not caused any accidents! Phew!

I had Leo hold the camera for a couple of our car trips so you could experience what it is like to drive from the left side:

You might wonder what makes a country decide which side to drive on. I found this on another website,  "In the past, almost everybody travelled on the left side of the road because that was the most sensible option for feudal, violent societies. Since most people are right-handed, swordsmen preferred to keep to the left in order to have their right arm nearer to an opponent."

Nice. Most of the countries that drive on the left side are British colonies. Hmmm. I think I'm glad for that Declaration of Independence.

One Aussie who understood the details of learning to drive on the opposite side asked me, "do you still turn your wipers on every time you indicate [use your turn signal]?" Yes. Yes, I do that. It's been 9 months and I STILL do that.

Now I worry about reversing this process when I return to the U.S.

I'll say that the drivers here are very courteous and non-competitive. If you put your blinker on ("indicate") to change lanes they actually MAKE SPACE FOR YOU, even if it means slowing down. I am so amazed by this every time it happens.

The speed limits here are *actual limits*. They don't go over the limit. This has a weird consequence of frequently creating "driving in formation" situations on longer stretches of road. I really can't stand driving in formation. My driver's ed training engrained in me the need to keep an escape route and not drive in blind spots. This doesn't seem to bother them here.

And, roundabouts. They are everywhere. It quickly became apparent to me that the Aussies and I don't see roundabouts the same way. I learned that in approaching a roundabout you should match the flow of traffic and try not to stop (which creates unnecessary congestion). You just merge into traffic and then make your exit when you need.

No. They kind of treat it like a four-way stop. The difference is that you only have to pay attention to the cars to your right, but they still stop. And then you're supposed to signal somehow when you intend to keep going past the first exit, but then you stop signaling partway through the roundabout so people know you are getting out (making it safe for them to enter), and in some instances, they want you to switch from signaling right to signaling left, all while ("whilst") navigating a circular turn with your other hand. Confused?

Try deciphering this handy graphic an angry resident posted on the city Facebook page.

But I was also taught to never trust a signal! Sometimes people just leave those blinkers on and you don't want to jump in front of their path just because their signal is still on. In my view, signals are for the people BEHIND YOU so they know when you are about to slow down or change lanes or whatever. It shouldn't give people in your path confidence to drive out in front of you. Take me for instance. I've tried doing this complicated signal in/signal out thing and I just don't do it right or the timing is wrong. So if you try to trust my signal I might just run over you. So, for everyone's safety, I just quit signaling entirely.

Roundabouts are great for traffic flow but only in low traffic areas. In high traffic areas it creates a bottleneck in all directions. Not just the direction of heavy traffic. It's super frustrating that you can't just keep moving. The speed limit may be 60-80kph, but everyone has to slow down to 20kmh (or stop) and then have to speed back up again, only to repeat the process again in just a few blocks at the next roundabout. They are sometime placed in very high traffic areas, like right before the onramp to the interstate (motorway).

On the other hand, often just past an intersection, you'll see a sign that announces "FORM ONE LANE" and within 20 feet the two lanes of traffic are forced into one. This happens almost effortlessly with no bottleneck and no slowing down. It's always a shock to me.

By far the craziest road situation has to be some of the exit roads off the freeway (motorway). Check out this picture from Google Maps:

What you see at the bottom left is the exit ramp from the freeway that becomes Aviation Road. Notice toward the top of the picture and just at the end of the word "Aviation" is a pedestrian crosswalk. Yes, after cars exit going 68mph, they turn the corner and BOOM there is a shopping center with a pedestrian crosswalk! What a great place for high traffic flow! You can imagine the rush hour bottleneck that happens in places like this. What's worse is that in order to get to the other side of the freeway (where presumably half of the cars want to go) there are THREE roundabouts to navigate right there by the offramp, the third roundabout is also fielding cars that want to get ON and OFF of the freeway going the opposite direction. In fact it's sort of a double roundabout. 

There really is not the excessive use of stop signs like we have in the U.S. That also helps with traffic flow because you don't have to come to that annoying "complete stop" when a simple observation of traffic (or lack thereof) will do. In fact, stop signs are very rare here. They are placed where truly needed. 

To get a license here, you have to be 17 years old, starting with a learner's permit (called your "L"s). After getting 120 hours of practice with a parent, you can move on to a probationary license (red "P"s) where you can drive alone, with family members, or with only one peer passenger. After one year, you move on to a green P license for 3 years. There are additional minor restrictions on green P drivers for three years (no mobile phone operations, zero blood alcohol tolerance). You get a full license at the ripe age of 22. 

So put this slower, more considerate driving and lengthy training together. I've seen hardly ANY traffic accidents (ironically, I drafted this post before this happened). But not from the Aussie perspective. Some of the roads really do have a lot of congestion. (In my opinion, this is caused by the poorly placed roundabouts.) This article reports a 8km (5mile) stretch of road had up to 34 accidents over a 5 year period. Five YEARS. That's one accident every 2 months. WHOA. Somebody put out a traffic cone.

And try parallel parking in the reverse direction. I did such a perfect job here that I took a picture!

So there. 

Drive thrus are also in reverse!

I know, of COURSE, the drive-up window needs to be on the side of the driver, which is on the right side of the car, but it still BLEW MY MIND when I actually saw it for the first time.

And there is such a thing as drive thru liquor stores, but it is LITERALLY a drive THRU the building. I think you should have to demonstrate your willingness to STOP driving if you are going to be drinking ALCOHOL BY THE CASE but liquor stores will go to the extreme to get your business!

And just in case you wonder... I still get in on the wrong side of the car. Or try to.

No comments:

Post a Comment