Driving on the Left

31 July 2017

Australian Road Sign

I love a good drive, always have. There is nothing like the freedom of the open road. I am also an engineer – not the cool train type – the nerd type. Logic, process, and how things work appeals to me, so I probably have taken an unusual interest in the Australian road system.

After 30 years of driving on the right, last year’s trip to Ireland and U.K. was my first exposure to driving on the left. How hard could it be? The first few days of rainy weather, in Dublin traffic, on narrow and worn roads, while driving the largest vehicle in the rental fleet, the task proved more challenging than I had expected. It sounds simpler than it is. When something happens suddenly, your reflexes take over. With a few miles under my belt and starting to understand the multi-lane spiral roundabouts, I eventually felt like I had mastered, or at least gracefully survived, driving on the left.

Coming to Australia, I knew it would take a few days to adjust but I felt like my previous experience would help. It did. But what helped even more was the Australian road system.

Driving in the U.K. I came to appreciate the roundabouts but found the Brits over committed. When you start having 4, 5 and 6 lane wide roundabouts, some with intermediate lights, it becomes ridiculous. At some point you just need to give up and admit a good old American traffic light is the far better solution. Conversely I found the typical roundabouts to be much better than the stop lights and signs used in the States.

I came to understand the hard way how the Brits use traffic cameras to control speed. It works. I hated it. Always driving the speed limit, or God forbid slower, on a highway is un-American! And doing it with traffic cameras, that is just unfair. At least give me a fighting chance, highway patrol versus driver, now that’s the American way.

In my opinion, Australia has the perfect mix. Roundabouts are used extensively however large intersections or tight spaces use lights. Despite my feelings about traffic cameras, they use them effectively in places they are most needed. The X-factor in all this is the Aussie drivers themselves. In large part, they are courteous and polite. Of course there is an occasional jerk in every crowd but overall I have been impressed with how well it all works. According to the World Health Organization (2015), Australia has just over half the vehicle deaths per 100,000 vehicles as the U.S.

Talking with folks here, I have been surprised to find a number of them express how inadequate they feel their road system is compared to the United States. It is true, sometimes I think the roads here must be similar to the United States in the 60’s with only a few super highways, a lot of two-lane highways connecting the dots, and unpaved (or unsealed) roads in rural areas. Ironically the population is disproportionally weighted in the capital cities so the traffic there is comparable to what you’d find in most American cities. Outside the major cities, the highway system might be 50 years behind the United States but I’d argue it is appropriate. To put this in perspective, Australia has a total population of 24 million (2016) compared to 323 million in the United States. With a population that is only 7.5% of the U.S. but a land area that is slightly larger than the Lower 48, it is no wonder the road system is not on the same scale. Living in the United States where road rage is out of control and nostalgia for Route 66 supports tourist attractions, I welcome the Australian roads and look forward to further exploring them.

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1 Response to Driving on the Left

  1. Rena Wehner says:

    Enjoy your road trips. I miss the way roads were in the 50s. The interstates get you where you are going faster, but you miss all there is to see. In my opinion super highways are only good for commuting to work.


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