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Driving on the ‘Wrong’ Side of the Road

October 8th, 2008 · 4 Comments · Hong Kong

The British ran Hong Kong for 155 years, but sometimes you would hardly guess it. The place seems at least as Chinese as  Beijing, where I spent three weeks in August.

A bit later, after I’ve been here longer, I probably will do an entry on traces of the British Empire here. Perhaps they are deeper than I notice, first off. More subtle.

One vestige I deal with every day may, actually, be the most significant in my life:

Driving on the left. Which discombobulates me and could possibly kill me.

If you’re an American who hasn’t done much traveling, you may be only vaguely aware that chunks of the planet drive on the left side of the road.

The link (above) to the wikipedia entry has a map showing areas where motor vehicles stay to the left. Mostly, it’s Great Britain and its former colonies, notably India and Australia. Japan, too.

To go out and look at traffic zooming past, on the “wrong” side of the road, sometimes can be laughable. It seems almost absurd. How can so many people have it wrong? How do they keep from crashing? How do they change gears (in manual-transmission cars) with their left hands? What happens if they forget to drive on the “wrong” side of the road?

Actually, driving on the left is far more dangerous than funny — to people conditioned to driving on the right.

Which brings me to Hong Kong, where everyone drives on the left — even though all of China (aside from Macau) drives on the right.

I have driven on the left before, and it’s almost an out-of-body experience. You need to pay close attention to what you are doing because to rely on “instinct” is to get into an accident.

One of my brothers was seriously injured, decades ago, while driving a rental car in England. He entered a roundabout (a circular stretch of pavement, usually the junction of multiple roads) … and as he moved into traffic his last look was to his left. Which makes perfect sense — in the U.S.  But was a disaster in England. He didn’t notice traffic bearing down from his right — driving on the left side of the road, that is — and he woke up in a hospital with a massive headache and a totaled rental car on his record.

I’ve driven around England, Scotland and Ireland, and avoided accidents. But it always taxed my concentration enormously, actually tiring me and making me cranky. (Then, when I went home, I found myself banging into curbs, for several days, while making right-hand turns.)

Luckily, here, I won’t be driving. No need to. Hong Kong Island is so small and has such effective mass transit that private cars are both a luxury and a hassle.

But … I still am walking in a place where everyone drives on the wrong side of the road. And that could be an issue, considering I will be crossing several streets when I walk to work.

At every intersection, I find myself stopping. And peering. And trying to remember from which direction cars are coming. I still look left. I ought to be looking right. Even when I look right … I have to do a mental check. “Did I really look right? Is that correct?”
It has made me a skittish pedestrian, and that’s good. Because when I start assuming … I’m probably going to be run over by a bus.

I came within inches of death (or at least serious injury) in England in 1982, I believe it was. I was standing on a corner in Blackpool, north of Liverpool. I was about to cross a busy street, one of the main roads into and out of town. I looked left (that is, the wrong way), even after having spent the previous week driving on the left. I was about to step into the narrow road when a little old man to my right said, quite clearly, “mind the lorry!” A lorry being the British term for a truck.

And not two seconds later a large truck whizzed by at about 40 mph, not more than two feet from where I was standing, on the curb (or kerb, as the Brits would write). That was an eye-opener. Had not the old guy spoken up …

So, here, I’m trying to remember to pay attention. The locals try to help out the visitors. Many intersections have messages painted on the pavement with an arrow and the words “look right!” That is, where cars that will hit you first are coming from.

You don’t realize how much you take for granted until you cross a number of streets in a city where drivers are on the “wrong” side of the road. You need to evaluate where you are, and where cars are coming from, literally at every intersection.

To get it right, you really shouldn’t be talking to someone else. Don’t speak on a cell phone. Really, really, don’t drink-and-walk. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted, or you’re going to be a casualty.

Accidents befall people. So does sickness. Mayhem, even.

I am scheduled to be here four months. Not a long time, even in the short duration of the average human life. But I believe there is a fairly decent chance I won’t make it back intact — because my concentration will slip and I will wander into the street and be run over by a vehicle I literally never saw coming.

Driving on the left … the most dangerous of British legacy in Hong Kong. To an American, anyway.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dennis Pope // Oct 8, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Got to keep your head on a swivel.

  • 2 Doug // Oct 8, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    Congratulations on your new job. I am really enjoying your blogs from Hong Kong. This one brings back frightening memories for me from when I lived and drove in Japan for three years. You are so right about having to concentrate like crazy and fight against what your U.S. learned driving instincts tell you is the correct thing to do. It’s especially scary when you have to react quickly.

  • 3 George Alfano // Oct 12, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    Driving on the left side is more dangerous. There aren’t that many places where people do that – Great Britain and a couple of other former British places. They did some tests on it, and it was found to be safer. A couple of countries have switched from the left side to the right side for that reason.

  • 4 Driving on the Left in Cyprus // Mar 5, 2015 at 8:02 am

    […] we lived in Hong Kong, another left-side-of-the-street place, the risk was on a pedestrian level — because we didn’t have a car. And the risk to pedestrians can be significant, no […]

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