Driving a car in a foreign land is quite unlike riding a motorbike guys.
Done the motorbike bit for many years in Southeast Asia. No biggie. Easy really.
But for the past 6 weeks I’ve been driving a car in New Zealand. Different experience. Mainly because for 25 years I did everything in reverse to what I am doing now, driving cars in the United States.
How to Drive a Car on the Opposite Side of the Road
- in New Zealand I drive on the opposite side of the road
- the driver’s side is the right hand side in New Zealand
- the blinker and windshield wiper switches are on opposite sides of the wheel
- going left on red and making tough right turns totally screwed me up at first; and still does
You may nod and figure I’m some type of driving buffoon unable to adjust quickly to opposite driving in foreign lands but I drove hundreds of thousands of miles in the US. Not kidding. I can drive. But driving on the opposite side of the road in foreign lands can throw off even an experienced, confident driver like me. So I want to help you avoid accidents by sharing a few tips for driving safely in international countries where you do everything in reverse, driving-wise.
1: Practice Driving During Low Traffic Periods
I drove the dogs to the beach at 7 AM in Opotiki, a tiny little town on the North Island of New Zealand. Nobody around. Literally…NOBODY on the road.
Hitting the streets solo helped me practice driving without stressors like….other cars whizzing by me or riding my ass.
Practice driving during early or late hours, or whenever traffic is light. Gain confidence. Get comfortable driving in foreign lands before you dive into higher traffic conditions.
2: Talk to Yourself While Driving
While making turns I say to myself “Up-Left, Down-Right” to remind myself that signaling a left blinker requires an uptick and signaling a right blinker requires a downtick. I also note right side for blinker and left side for windshield wipers.
Talking to yourself reminds yourself of driving differences and reprograms your mind through the simple tactic of listening to verbal cues.
3: Forgive Yourself for Screwing Up
Last night I nearly missed my turn here in Christchurch so I speedily – and mistakenly – ticked the windshield wiper and made a sharp turn without signaling. This has happened 3 or 4 times when I nearly miss turns. I go back to thinking I’m driving in the US and tick the wrong side. 25 years of driving habits die hard.
For a few seconds I feel dumb or outright flustered but avoid holding grudges or punishing myself for being human, forgiving myself of inevitable driving screw ups. Never carry anger, frustration or shame with you; this leads to potential accidents or increased screw ups.
You will screw up a few times riding on the opposite side of the road in a car with the steering wheel sitting on the opposite side of the car. Be gentle with yourself. Laugh off driving errors. Let go mistakes. Learn from boo boo’s. No sense beating yourself up for being human.
4: Slow Down in Urban Centers
Opotiki driving was a piece of cake. Timaru pretty easy too. But I am challenged here in Christchurch by:
- more traffic
- narrow roads
- tight, confusing, frequent roundabouts
- big hills
- blind spots around tight corners on big hills (this one is super challenging)
I quickly learned to slow down, to calm down and to take it easy. If I’m backing out of a driveway onto a mountain with a tight curve blind spot 20 meters away – and I do at least 1-2 times daily at the AirBnB – I patiently take my time even if someone comes flying around the curve at a high rate of speed. Ditto for anybody riding my tail in circles or going uphill.
Never allow another driver’s impatience to affect your vibe. Take a deep breath. Slow down. Calm down. Stay safe.
5: Map Out Routes Before Driving
Even though I use GPS I map out routes before driving to know where I’m headed and how to get there. This leads to fewer sharp turns and other hairy situations if the GPS lags in offering directions.
Google Map your journey before hopping into the car. Jot down a rough draft of the directions on a piece of paper for backup insurance. Knowing where you’re headed before driving helps you embrace the stresses of cruising on the opposite side of the road in your hometown.
6: Avoid Hugging the Shoulder
Driving on the opposite side of the road feels intimidating. Especially as oncoming traffic barrels toward you from an alien direction.
Avoid the common tendency of hugging the shoulder to position yourself well away from the center line. Large trucks and speeding cars may scare the bejesus out of you but if you’re not careful you will drive off the road. Especially here in New Zealand. Folks love to hug the middle line at a high rate of speed in NZ. Hair pin curve or straightaway. Doesn’t matter.
Stay in the middle of your lane. Soon enough you become comfortable with seeing traffic head your way from a different direction.
Have you ever driven on the opposite side of the road in a foreign land?
What tips can you add to this list?
Did you make the transition smoothly? Or did it take you a while to get adjusted?