Driving on the OTHER Side of the Road
Driving on the OTHER side of the road for a month was an interesting experience. Here's a photo of a bus I drove behind... I liked the name of it - the "Super Anne". But it shows what it felt like to drive on the left...
Also, nearly all the roads were only two lanes, one lane each direction. If you got stuck behind a bus or a truck, you had to wait for a straight bit of road before you could safely pass. Actually, there were a bunch of signs all over the country warning about the dangers of wreckless driving and speeding. I saw some people do some insane maneuvers. And I had one close call when I tried to pass a truck that sped up as I started to pass, and the curve came up fast and a car was there... but otherwise, I didn't do too badly.
Because people often want to pass and can't, the kiwis (particularly younger drivers) have an awful habit of getting right up on your tail... even though they can't pass you because it's too curvy, or too many cars - and there's no place for you to pull over to let them pass because there's a rock wall on one side, and a drop off on the other. You just have to endure them on your tail until the situation changes... just like occasionally I had to endure slow drivers, but I didn't get on their tail..
First thing in the morning was the most potentially dangerous. I rolled out of my tent, packed up and had to consciously remind myself to turn into the left side of the road as I put the car into gear and pulled away - in my sleepy morning haze, I was afraid I'd instinctively turn into the right lane. Actually, I never accidentally drove on the wrong side of the road until I got back to the states. Believe it or not, I was back in the states for about two weeks, and I fell asleep in my parked car while I was waiting for someone. After I woke up from my little snooze, I started driving through a small town and turned into the left lane... who knows why? I couldn't figure out why the other cars coming towards me were stopping. They were still a block away before I sorted myself out and snapped out of it, so no real harm done and I haven't done it since.
Operating a right-sided car was also strange - even without considering which lane one is driving in. I had to shift gears with my left hand, the rearview mirror was to my left. The wipers and turn indicator were flipped. My friend Kris said there was a joke that Americans always check the wipers before they indicate a turn, and they check the turning indicator before they turn on the wipers. It took me almost the entire month before I stopped automatically functioning like I was in a left-sided car. I never realized how much of driving was completely automatic.
I had three different rental cars and I drove my friend's car for a day or two to practice - thank you Kris!. It was funny, Kris' car was switched (wipers and indicators) and I was constantly flipping on/off one instead of the other. And then my first rental car was really nice and new (see photo above), and it was flipped back to the American way for tourists... although the steering wheel was still on the right-hand side of the car. But just when I got used to the wipers and indicators being back where I was used to them being.. it was time to cross the strait to the south island and get another rental car... which was flipped back! I had that car the longest and got used to them being flipped. Then the third rental car I got when I was back on the north island was like the second rental car only a different color, so that was okay. But then when I got back to the states it took me weeks to finally readjust to my own car!
The drive-thrus felt strange too... Here's a photo of a McDonald's drive-thru in Rotorua. As I drove up, something felt so odd... doesn't this photo feel a bit odd to you? That's my steering wheel at the bottom of the photo on the right side of the car.
Also, there are few stop/go lights - instead the kiwis use more roundabouts. They took some getting used to, but I got pretty good at them before I left. Everyone drives the same direction around them, and each person pulls off when they get to the direction they want to turn. When I came up to them, I usually turned off the radio and made a conscious effort to really think about what everyone was doing. I think only once did I need to keep going past my turn, go all the way around again, and catch my turn the second time.
Here's a photo of a typical highway sign with red route numbers and the cities the highway takes you to in white. I also took the photo because the corn behind it reminded me of Illinois. When I made my turn to the left, I turned into the near lane... can you imagine how odd that would feel? The whole "right on red, get ahead, - left on red, soon be dead" thing is flipped in New Zealand. And at every turn and roundabout I really had to concentrate. But I feel good that I did it. :-)