Tips for adjusting to "opposite side" driving?

I've driven extensively in many European countries on previous trips. But always in familiar, left-hand drive cars, on the right side of the road - same as at home. Next trip to Europe will be the UK (and I'm headed to Australia this fall too, where everything is backwards - cars, roads, seasons, toilets flushing...). I plan to drive a bit while there. Any tips for easing the adjustment to "opposite side" driving?

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7978 posts

Simple. Don't think about it, just do it. Everwhat the subconscious part of your brain is will handle it just fine. Start thinking and you get bumfoozled, clutch, slow down, and make a mess of things. A caution. The other door is going to be the one opening into traffic when you parallel park, watch out you don't get it knocked off. The further complication is that you can parallel park on the side of the road from the direction of advance, then the doors are reversed again. Australia. No matter where you are, you won't have a problem shifting - - that's muscle memory and it switches sides without a problem. The neato Australians have built a trap, however. There's no telling which side of the steering wheel the wiper stalk is on and which side the turn signals are on.
Signal early so you don't confuse people by cleaning your windows when you wanted to indicate an upcoming turn. The swish swish is the give away, but it's going to take you a while to notice it. Every time I go down there it takes me a few days to catch on, then next time it's reversed.

Posted by Roberto
Fremont, CA, USA
3351 posts

Toilets? I didn't notice differences in the toilets in Australia? Stay focused when you drive. It helps to follow a car in front of you and do the same as they do. But then again, if you end up following another American you might be screwed :). The most annoying mistake is when you activate the windshield wiper instead of the blinker. Try not to open the door and fall out when you try to change gears. The stick is on your left too.

Posted by Monte
Genesee, ID
1376 posts

I let my wife drive in Scotland. She is a lot better at it than I am. Now that I'm seventy three I can't rent a car or drive there.

Posted by Eileen
Texan in CA
3582 posts

Roberto, watch the direction in which the water swirls down the drain/toilet bowl...then go watch yours ;-) (Disclaimer - since my speakers aren't on, the audio may be Satanic spewings from playing the White Album backwards; pardonez-moi if that's the case). Of course, all bets are off if you encounter those exploding toilets that use way too much force :-( David, the answer is simple - buy Monte's wife an airline ticket ;-) I'm with the ones that say 'just go with it', once you've gotten the hang of it. I also say pay attention to what they (and others - do more research on where you'll be driving) mention about opening doors into traffic, etc. - prepare mentally over and over and over so you'll have some muscle memory. Lots of people here have trouble when pulling out of parking lots, gas stations, etc. Don't Pull Into The Wrong Lane! That's NOT the kind of auto-pilot you want to use. Allow yourself lots of room and time to react! Another very important thing to remember is to be very careful as a pedestrian! Many people get killed stepping into the path of a vehicle because they're looking the wrong direction :-( Or to have more excitement, just do your thing! Make THEM adapt to YOU! It's silly driving on the 'wrong' side of the road, anyway...

Posted by Nancy
Bloomington, IL, USA
7683 posts

One thing an Irish friend told me the first time I was going to tackle their narrow roads: when in doubt, stop. If you are approaching another vehicle and you really think the road is too narrow for both of you, even though the other guy shows no sign of slowing, just stop and let him get around you. Worse case, if he does scrape you, the moving vehicle is at fault.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7978 posts

Toilets? I didn't notice differences in the toilets in Australia? Hrumph! Coriolis effect. The same reason southern hemisphere tropical cyclone surface winds circulate clockwise and our hurricane surface winds spin anti-clockwise. Look at the symbol for a low pressure system in the US, dead give away. And east coast ocean currents go away from the equator on both sides. And west coast currents go toward the equator on both sides. There's order to the world, you just have to snoop around to find it.

Posted by Angela
Sammamish, WA
403 posts

Rent an automatic. Much easier if you don't have to include shifting gears in all that concentration on the road. Try to pick up your car away from the city. Driving on country roads with fewer cars can help you build a little confidence before you take on a city. Our first right hand drive rental was at Ayer's Rock in Australia, the perfect place to learn! Avoid driving in London at all costs.

Posted by Kevin
near Ringwood, Hampshire, UK
521 posts

The first time I ever drove on the right was after 8 or 9 years of driving here in the UK. I flew into LAX from New Zealand, hired a car and got as far as Bakersfield before my body clock caught up with me. The first problem was that I'd never driven an automatic before, so for the first 2 days my left foot kept trying to push down on the clutch. I remembered eventually, but I never felt fully in control with only a brake, especially up in the mountains. The next biggest problem was the rules of the road. On the freeway they overtake on the left and the right. At night on country roads they flash their headlights before they are going to overtake you. They turn right even when the traffic lights are on red (that may not have been in California, can't remember). If there is an American version of our Highway Code booklet then I wish I'd read it before I went. As for getting around, junctions, getting on and off freeways, I didn't have any major problems. I think Ed is right, just don't think about it too much. It's easier if you watch what other drivers are doing and you can follow them.

Posted by Liz
Malaga, Malaga, Spain
410 posts

As an Australian who after many many years driving on the left, now drives on the right, in Spain, I agree with what most others have said. Concentrate - even after a few years here I am aware that more of my brain is engaged when driving than it would have been back in Australia. Do not drive when tired. I have driven manual cars all my life and much prefer them but get an automatic if you can - one less thing to worry about. Motorways/freeways/expressways - are easy, just follow everyone else but driving on normal roads with corners and roundabouts is more challenging. There are a lot of roundabouts in Australia, and relatively few in the US I think. Also Australia does not have the motorway system you have in the US, or is in much of Europe- huge country, small population. One other difference we noticed between Australia and Europe (don´t know about the US) is overtaking style. In Australia they tend to indicate and pull into the overtaking lane much sooner than they do in most of central Europe. Finally, beware the speed cameras, red light cameras and radar -everywhere!

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
2391 posts

When you are on a road just driving, it all comes naturally because you always keep approaching traffic next to you (the driver). Where I find I need to fully concentrate are car parks and backing up. The more significant issue is to be fully aware of the rules of the road, highway signs and the rules for roundabouts.

Posted by Laura B
San Francisco
142 posts

During a 2-week trip to the UK my then-12-year-old daughter was given the task of shouting "left ! drive left !!" whenever I started veering toward the wrong side. If you will have passengers, they will no doubt accommodate you this way. Got so used to the driving that when I got into my own car for the drive home from SFO she had to remind me "right! drive right!!"

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

Special care and attention is needed approaching and moving through roundabouts, if you aren't already used to 'traffic circles', which do exist in various forms, at least in the Northeast U.S., and I've seen a few elsewhere too.

Posted by Rosalyn
Berkeley
1009 posts

What I found most useful, when living in the UK for a year and driving daily, was to think about keeping myself near the center line. Especially when making a right turn, it's a helpful aid. One does tend to drift if not maintaining a state of hyper-awareness.

Posted by Brad
Gainesville, VA
7211 posts

Similar to Rosalyn, when in doubt keep your outside (away from the center of the car) shoulder toward the center of the road. Alternatively, keep yourself (whether you are on the right or left) toward the center of the road. It seems to click for me fairly quickly. The one area I always find myself hesitating is at roundabouts - so I make sure I concentrate. I like the idea to follow another car too - but that only works when there is someone to follow. Even that can be a problem. In Amsterdam I followed a taxi down a side street, within a block the taxi turned off and, within another block, I was pulled over by two cops on bicycles for driving in a bus only lane.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

Aren't automatics like EXTREMELY more expensive - both the rental cost and I've heard they can't use diesel so higher petrol cost and poorer MPG?

Posted by Keith
United Kingdom
683 posts

I quite often do this the other way - being used to driving on the left and then doing so on the right when on the continent. I find I get used to it quite quickly, but the one place I make mistakes is at multiple junctions - especially roundabouts, where even though I am going around in the opposite direction to usual, my brain still reverts to "normal" and I think about leaving the roundabout at what is actually an entry not an exit. Other than taking particular care at cases like that (in the UK you will come across many roundabouts), I think it pretty easy to get used to "opposite" driving very soon. On many roads you get obvious "clues", most notably whether the opposing traffic is on the other side or if the traffic lights are facing you! Also, the loo/bath plug going the other way in Australia, is indeed a myth, I'm afraid. Also, also, I don't know if automatics are hugely more expensive to hire, but they can certainly use diesal (my main car is auto and runs on diesal).

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8760 posts

Why can't they use a diesel engine with an automatic gearbox? Ask my uncle, my cousin's husband, my next door neighbor. They all have diesels with automatic boxes.

Posted by Maggie
Boscombe, Dorset, UK
960 posts

I learned to drive in the US and then moved to the UK. It's easy to switch, so don't worry about it. The only thing I had to practise was reversing into a spot. Otherwise, no problem.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

Thanks, Nigel and Keith, for clarifying re diesel. It was just something I heard once but hadn't taken time to verify. For fun, I ran a quick test at Hertz. To get (pick-up at Heathrow) a 2-4 Door Economy size car, Manual with A/C = £52.19 per day. Same size car Automatic with A/C = £83 per day. Approximately 37% higher per day, if I did the math correctly.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7978 posts

The above 'fun' data is meaningless unless you rent for just a day. Rent for a week and the cheapest car will cost about twenty American united states dollars per day.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

OK, same test on Hertz for a weekly rental Sunday to Sunday, pick up at Heathrow: 2-4 Door Economy Manual with A/C = £143.86
2-4 Door Compact Automatic with A/C = £433.30 !!! There is no 'Economy' Automatic on offer, but the little photos look like it's the same size vehicle. It is Hertz, which is often higher priced than the budget agencies. This is just one example. Maybe Ed will show a similar comparison example with real numbers captured today.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7978 posts

Did that first to confirm thoughts. My guess was twenty-three for summer. Results were twenty bucks, cheapest, per week, july, Heathrow. I don't post guesses or trivia. Or play useless games. Or continue meaningless discussion. Anybody that needs the info can work it out easily enough. End.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

Oh Ed, honestly. Replies like that do not foster open discussion on a public forum. Show us the real numbers. It's no big deal, and it's not a competition. It's merely an example.

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
2612 posts

I have rented automatics a few times in England... while it was more, it's not that much more. Go to priceline, right now a compact for random July dates is about 140 or so per week and there is a Ford Fiesta automatic for about 200, including free extra driver...I have never paid a ton more, but I will check all the companies till I find a good rate. I drive a manual in Europe and at home in the US, but I just don't want one more thing to worry about. I think I could do it, but I don't want to find it out after I already have he dumb car that I can't adjust and enjoy the road trip, so I go with the automatic.

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
2391 posts

The cost difference between manual and automatic is moot if one does not know how to drive a manual. And a foreign rental car with opposite side driving is NOT the place to learn...

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8760 posts

Time to make numbers sing. Statistics and accountants can be made to sing many ways.... Auto Europe quotes a Vauxhall Corsa manual A/C 18th August 7 days 10am Heathrow full/full fuel £214.50 (4 door) or £215.43 (2 door). Same car same spec, automatic £229.35 (2 door). So 2 door to 2 door is, let's see, um, £1.99 a day to make it an automatic. Sounds cheap as chips to me. For less than £300 I can even do you a full size (officially standard or intermediate but plenty big by UK standards) Jetta or Insignia or Avensis.

Posted by Steve
Gaston, Oregon, USA
869 posts

Just got back from 2 weeks of driving in Ireland; the most stressful driving I have ever done in my life. I have driven all over the US,Canada, Caribbean, Europe, etc. I have been in traffic jams in Palermo when they drove past me on the curb, gone down one way streets where I had to back up 'cause my car was too wide, been run off the road by a bus because the tiny rental car did not have the power to merge on the freeway, etc. I would gladly repeat all those again before I would drive a stick shift on the narrow roads of Ireland. The freeways are a "piece of cake", roundabouts are easy, city traffic is easy, it's just the damn narrow country roads that are such a pain. I don't even mind the sheep on the road. First of all, there are NO, none, zilch shoulders on the roads. Rock walls with brush on each side, and there is so much brush you can't see ahead, especially on any type of corner. (this is the absolute worst problem) Then there are the damn cyclists that are just around the next bend, then the cyclists and a tour bus (again you can't see 'em 'till you get close enough to run them over. Don't get me started on the stick shift. My rental had a six speed. Good luck finding the right gear with my left hand. Because the roads were constantly changing I had one hand on the gear shift knob and one on the steering wheel, and I had to constantly change gears. By the way, I have and drive everything out there; One of my tractors has a gear shift on the left, my Cat requires that you use both hands and feet at the same time, my wife's car and my small pick-up are both stick shifts.

Posted by Steve
Gaston, Oregon, USA
869 posts

(continued) So David, some tips from a recent survivor: 1. Buy lot of insurance; you're going to need it. You should have seen the left side of my rental. Every one of my friends has either dinged or damaged a car in Ireland. 2. Get the smallest darn car you can find; you will be really glad you did. Ours was one step above the bottom...and it was waaaaaaaay too wide 3. Look right! Do this first...then left, at any intersection. 4. Take Angela's advice; get an automatic; it does not cost that much more.
5. Like Roslyn and Brad say; bury your right front wheel on the center line. Yes, it looks like you are going to hit the oncoming traffic, but you are not> if you don't do this you will constantly listen to your Better Half scream as you hit the brush on the edge/side of the road. 6. Take your time driving from one venue to another. Allow lots of time for sightseeing trips. One day we went from Dingle to Galway, and stopped at the Cliffs of Mohler, and did the Burren. It was too much, and I was totally overwhelmed. When we were driving the narrow roads I never saw one site unless we stopped; all I could do was concentrate on the road. Seriously, Ireland is amazingly beautiful. Take your time and use your wits, and you will do fine. (Hopefully!)

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
2612 posts

@Steve... Well, after reading your experience I am even more glad that I always rent an automatic when I am driving in Ireland or England.

Posted by Dick
Olympia, WA, USA
674 posts

My experience in England and Scotland two years ago was a lot like Steve's, much harder to drive than I had expected. And I had an automatic. The downside of automatic is that the car's likely to be bigger (wider) which makes the narrow-lanes-stone-shoulders-left-side-dings-screaming-spouse problem that much worse. After about a week I started getting my body oriented to the car, i.e. leaning to the right instead of left for a better angle on the center line, looking over my left shoulder instead of right when backing, looking right instead of left entering roundabouts and intersections. Ed's muscle memory must work differently from mine. I had to retrain body and brain. Body was harder. But don't let driving concerns keep you from seeing places and things you want to. Cotswolds, Scottish Highlands, Cornwall and others work much better if you can drive yourself instead of depending on infrequent buses or tour drivers (who bring other advantages, to be sure). It's doable, just take it easy and remember always "left, left, left!" There's a story, may be true, that when the cross-Channel ferries empty out at Dover there are guys standing at the entrance to the main highway to London, waving their arms constantly toward the left lanes and yelling "A gauche! A gauche!" Maybe you can get one of them to go with you! ;)

Posted by Roberto
Fremont, CA, USA
3351 posts

To get used to driving on the "wrong" side of the road before you go to the UK I suggest you first land in Naples, Italy and rent a car there. In Italy they drive on the right side, but in Naples you can drive anywhere, right, left, center, on the road, off the road, on bus lanes, tramway tracks, on the sidewalk, wherever it's easier and faster. Nobody will even notice if you accidentally drive on the other side toward the opposing traffic, because lots of Neapolitans do it and you won't feel embarrassed. You can test yourself and drive on any side of the road in Naples and that will ease your transition to driving on the left in England.

Posted by David
Seattle, WA, USA
1414 posts

Wow, as the OP in this thread I'm impressed by the responses. I can't imagine myself renting a car in the UK with an automatic transmission so I'm going to have to somehow force my muscle memory to "mirror" or go through some other magical transformation. Fortunately I have a trip to Australia first, and although the Coriolis Effect there may keep me more disoriented (not to mention fascinated in the bathroom...), the wide open Australian landscapes should be more forgiving of my first tentative wrong-side driving. Thanks for all the input.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

David, your reply saying 'thanks' made me wonder if there might be a simulator-type video game that one could use ahead of time to start training the eyes and brain a little. Why not? - there are flight simulators after all. Turns out there is one. Sorry, I have no actual experience with it, but it might be worth looking into. http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B004MFY85C

Posted by Denny
Columbus, OH, USA
733 posts

On our first trip to London as pedestrians, we were taught this little ditty:
"Left is right, right is wrong. If you don't look right, we pick up what's left." Driving on a later trip, it became a mantra. It required a lot of concentration. Some rural roads were one lane wide so it all became academic. We pulled over a lot. Drivers were courteous. We learned to allow for more time and just get there when we got there.