Australia: Driving On the Left

Taken by the Captain, December 2011

In Australia Driving on The Left, Taken by @CaptnWing_n_it, December 2011

Having spent a lot of time in Australia, I’d say the biggest challenge I have faced has been getting around my fear of driving.

Here in the United States, I love driving. It has always given me a sense of freedom and a chance to escape. Long stressful day at work? Disagreement with a friend, family member or your other half? Feeling stir crazy? The answer for me was always to jump in my car, blast some music and go for a cruise.

Although I had been to other countries before that drove on the left, I really didn’t do much driving in them. If I did, I was part of a five-vehicle convoy and all I had to do is be sure to not lose the cars in front of me and follow their lead.

Easy enough.

Australia is different. Its not a quick stop for work, it has become my second home. The Captain goes to work and when he does, I am on my own. Luckily he lives in walking distance to a ton of shops, restaurants and hiking trails. Beyond that, he had given me a bike for Christmas one year so I have used that to get down to Lake Burley Griffin and the surrounding museums.

After avoiding the challenge at all costs, the Captain insisted on my last trip that it was time for me to learn.

Working as a pilot, he can be away for days at a time, which left me at the apartment alone with no transportation while his car sat at work OR he’d take a cab to leave me with a perfectly good car, sitting in a parking garage that I refused to use. It was silly. I really couldn’t argue with him… don’t tell him I said it… but he was right.

It was time.

For someone who loves driving, what were my reasons for avoiding it in Australia?

  1. I was worried about ending up on the wrong side of the road, leading me to harm someone else, harm myself or damage his car. Sure, he had me on his insurance… but still.
  2. I wanted more driving time with him in the car to get used to the rules of the road as well as getting used to driving around Canberra.
  3. I was extremely worried about driving once I returned home, for the same reasons listed above in number one.

My third reason may sound a bit strange. However, I have found driving at home (on the right) can be dangerous following a trip that had you driving on the left. Why is that?

Think about it… Let’s say you go to Australia and you spend a week or two driving on the left when you are used to driving on the right. You are aware of the danger so you are overly cautious while driving. You are overly aware. You are constantly making sure you aren’t making any silly slip-ups that could have you on the wrong side of the road. After a few days, you become more comfortable and by the end of the trip driving on the left isn’t much of a worry.

Then you return home.

You’re now at home, where you are comfortable driving on the right. You know what you’re doing, at least you think you do. For those reasons, you don’t think so hard about it. You don’t worry. You’re not as aware as you were overseas and before you know it you’re driving down the left side of the road because that’s what you just spent the week plus doing.

It may sound silly, however there were several times I almost got hit just crossing the street once I returned home because I looked the wrong way first before crossing. This is a pretty common mistake that I have heard other travelers make upon returning from a trip.

Funny enough, the streets in Canberra have markers spray painted on the streets for morons like me-letting you know which way to look before crossing. Doesn’t do me much good once I return to New Hampshire (weekend spray painting project perhaps?).

How difficult is it to drive on the left?

Let’s start with the car.

  • You climb into the driver’s seat…on the right side of the car. Odd.
  • You go to use your blinker but instead turn on the windshield wipers. You go to turn on your windshield wipers and your blinker comes on. Yes…all those controls are in reverse too (in most cars).
  • You go to switch gears and surprise… if you use your right hand you’re just grabbing your door. You shift with your left.
  • Break and gas pedals are the same as home.

Doesn’t sound all that difficult?

Now add the above to driving on the left side of the street…

Tight left turns, loose right turns.

Going around “roundabouts” (rotaries) the opposite way (around clockwise rather than counter clockwise).

Add to the confusion (at times) by getting directions by a local. Example…

Captain: Go through the roundabout and take a right…

Me: Ummm… so, stay on the rotary?

Captain: No, take a right…

Me: Take a right where? The only right I can take is to continue around… I like the view and all but I don’t care to stay on the rotary all day…

That’s when he explained that in Australia you don’t see 4 way intersections like you do in the United States. Four-way intersections in Australia are turned into rotaries… So when he said, “go through the rotary and take a right” he meant “go through the rotary and take the 3rd exit” OR “take a right at the four way stop”. In most cases driving with a local is HUGELY helpful but be prepare for moments of confusion-even if you speak the same language.

Speed cameras everywhere that will “book you” (ticket you) for barely going over.

Sometimes there are signs warning you that speed cameras are coming up ahead-other times there are no warnings. Usually they are placed on a pole at the side of the road or at an intersection. Other speed cameras are sneaky… they have speed cameras that are placed in cars that are parked on the edge of the road. You drive by speeding thinking you’re just passing a broken down car but surprise… Your ass has just been booked!

Add street signs to the mix that you have never seen before…

One thing to be aware of is that in most places in Australia you cannot make a U-turn. It depends on the state but most states don’t allow it. However… if they DO allow it at a particular intersection, there will be a sign saying you can. I found this confusing since back home you can make U-turns at just about any intersection as long as there isn’t a sign saying you can’t. Again, it’s the opposite from home. Same with turns on a red… back home you can turn on a red unless there’s a sign saying you cant. In Australia you cant unless there’s a sign saying you can.

Seat Belts are mandatory-no ifs, ands or buts.

Sobriety Check Points…

In the states, an officer my lawfully stop you if you give them reason to (probable cause). You can then be subjected to a breathalyzer test if they believe you are under the influence. This is not the case in Australia. Everyone gets stopped at a Sobriety Check Point and EVERY driver is required to take the breathalyzer. There is no argument for probable cause-if you drive, you are subject to taking one. This is one of those times where you leave the “being an American” attitude at home because you are not in the U.S. Their country, their rules. Lesson being-Australia has zero tolerance for stupid.

The passing (or “overtaking”) lane on a double lane highway is located on the right.

At home the left is a pass only, in Australia the right is a pass only.

Finally add the lines on the street being different from home.

In the U.S. we have yellow lines that break up the two oncoming sides of traffic …in Australia it’s not like that. There are white lines everywhere, so I always have to be extra cautious since it makes me feel like I’m on a one-way street-when I am not. The only time I have seen yellow lines is to mark places not to park, stop, etc.

Best piece of advice for driving on the correct side of the road?

Regardless of whether you are in Australia driving on the left or the United States… the driver sits closest to the center line of the road. If you can remember that, it makes staying on the correct side of the street much easier (especially when it comes to making turns at an intersection).

Overall, it isn’t impossible. Be aware and be careful. If you have a GPS or map app that obviously takes away the stress of getting lost, then you can focus on safety. It took me only a few days to feel comfortable with driving on the left but I do want to stress the importance of being cautious when you return home.

Kris Williams
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7 Comments

  • Joe Tourville March 3, 2016 at 12:21 am Reply

    Hey Kris, after living here in the United States all my life , I could only imagine how weird it would be to then try to drive on the left on the roads , not to mention to , to try to get use to sitting and driving a car on the right side as opposed to the left , and on top of that to try to shift with your left hand wow , don’t know if I could do it. I suppose I could after a whole lot of practice. Your reasons for avoiding driving in Australia, yeah I think I would be thinking the same things you listed. 1, 2 and 3, be safe Kris, and hope your enjoying you’re time there, and yes be careful to when you get back to the US. GOD BLESS! !!!

    • Kris Williams
      Kris Williams March 10, 2016 at 2:26 am Reply

      It is definitely tricky! I am starting to get the hang of it but every now and then I’ll find myself really having to think about which side I need to turn onto. 🙂

  • Dick Keefe March 10, 2016 at 1:54 pm Reply

    Hi Kris, I just subscribed to your newsletter. I live near Worcester, MA. My wife and I are planning a trip to Australia (Sydney and area around Great Barrier Reef) and New Zealand next January with our granddaughter. Do you have any “must see” or “must do” advice based on your experiences? We enjoy the outdoors, hiking, kayaking, but also exploring unique places, whether urban, suburban or countryside. Many thanks. P.S. I enjoyed reading your article about driving on the left! lol.

  • Justin Harmon March 20, 2016 at 3:47 pm Reply

    Kris don’t worry.
    I moved here 13 years ago when I was 15 have been everywhere but back home to Alabama. Due to epilepsy I finally got my learners at the age of 28…. Pretty poor yes I know. I still to this day being a passenger not even thinking about always tend to head to drivers seat!!! Halarious and I still get confused…. Is that a dog driving that car???
    Plus roundabouts. Use to them now but even more confusing! How will I go once I go back to see family for 6 months next year??? In Alabama.. So confusing

  • Andrew June 20, 2016 at 3:07 pm Reply

    haha! Great article. And I can say the same for myself while driving in the US (sorry, driving on the right is just wrong on soooo many levels!).
    That said, my partner is American and she was completely in sympathy – incidentally we live in Canberra too.
    We both agree though that the ability to survive Canberra drivers is an achievement in itself. 😉

    • Kris Williams
      Kris Williams June 20, 2016 at 4:06 pm Reply

      LOL I found it funny around Canberra Center they had arrows painted on the ground telling you which way to look first before crossing. Love Canberra though! My guy moved to Brisbane in Jan so trying to get used to that now. Where is your partner from?

      • Andrew June 21, 2016 at 12:32 pm Reply

        She’s a SoCal girl. LA. So the poor dear suffers immensely at the Canberra winters (and so do I!).
        Brisvegas is a great move. Used to live there too and miss the place terribly. Be sure to check out Cape Byron and the hinterland. Superb. 🙂
        I think you’ll be safe in Queensland. There’s thousands of expat Americans living there, so you’re not alone in your pain. 😛

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