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Shifting Sands

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How do drivers avoid making dangerous mistakes when driving on a different side of the road?

Like many former British colonies, Australians drive on the left.  Tourists visiting Australia from countries where motorists drive on the right often fail to anticipate the challenges of driving on a different side of the road in an unfamiliar city.

This morning I was saddened to learn of another tragic death on Australian roads. A French tourist is facing charges because she killed a teenage driver in a head on collision after becoming confused and crossing the centre line. Last year an American man received a two – year jail sentence when he killed his wife in a similar incident. Both accidents happened at night suggesting reduced visibility (and fatigue) could have been contributing factors.

A few years ago I was t-boned at an intersection after an American teenager in a ute (utility) slammed into the side of my Hyundai Getz after he turned right on a red arrow.

A right turn in Australia is the equivalent of a left turn in countries where drivers drive on the right. Any turn that involves crossing an intersection in front of oncoming traffic is inherently risky. Collisions occur because drivers pull into the intersection without checking if the way is clear or they misjudge the speed of oncoming traffic.

My  collision happened at night (2am) near the city center at a four – way intersection for two dual carriageways. The roads are marked with dedicated right turn lanes and each of these lanes has a turn signal (red or green arrow). Right turning drivers must wait in the correct lane for the green arrow before they can turn across oncoming traffic safely.

I entered the intersection on a green light not expecting another car to make a right turn in front of me. Seeing the utility seconds before I cleared the intersection was terrifying. I grabbed the wheel, slammed on the brakes and turned my face away from the side window as the other car hit me on the driver’s side. The teenager didn’t see my car until he smashed into it.

I sat in my car covered in broken glass as the uninjured kid stumbled from his vehicle and abused me for going through a red light. His friends wisely decided to stay in the ute. The front of my Hyundai Getz was gone and I could smell burning rubber and petrol.

A tattooed, beefy man and his equally intimidating son stormed out of their car. They had been waiting behind the other driver at the intersection. The older man told the teen he had turned against a red arrow and to shut the fuck up. So he did.

The witnesses helped me out the car and waited with me until the ambulance arrived. I felt light headed and had to lie on the curb but expected to get a taxi home after the ambulance  driver checked me out.

Hours later, when the doctor finally let me use the toilet in the emergency ward I was shocked to look in the mirror and see my blonde hair, face and the front of my dress caked in dried blood. Suddenly I knew why I was scaring all the drunks and meth users as they lurched past my stretcher.

After seeing myself in the mirror and fending off attempts by the nurse to cut my expensively bleached hair, I felt a bit miffed with the other driver. He must have seen all the blood (head wounds bleed a lot) yet he still decided to yell at me.

I spent two days in hospital with internal bruising, concussion and busted knees. I also needed a few stiches in my scalp. Someone arranged for a psychologist to counsel me about the accident. He arrived in time to overhear me hassling the nurses to change the name above my bed to Miss Valentine (not Mrs.) because the cute A&E doctor was due to make his rounds and I wanted him to know I was single. The psychologist decided I was fine, if somewhat deluded.

For months after the accident the other driver mystified the insurance assessors (on both sides) by insisting he had a green signal and therefore I must have caused the accident by going through a red light. I don’t know why he thought this. We were on the same road driving in opposite directions. He was in the right turn lane whereas I was going straight. Being in the right turn lane meant he had his own traffic signals – a red or green arrow. Even if he had believed he could make a legal right turn on a green signal (an American yield on green) he should have given way to oncoming traffic. If he had done this, he may have violated a traffic rule (turning against a red arrow) but we wouldn’t have crashed.

I wouldn’t have given any thought to how the other driver came close to killing me if he hadn’t been so adamant I was at fault, which held up my various insurance claims. Even now, years after the event, I’m sure he has no idea how his driving caused the accident. It’s a bit of a worry.

After driving in Houston, Texas for the past eight weeks, I can think of three reasons the collision may have occurred.

First, as he approached the intersection and looked to the right the driver’s brain may have tricked him into thinking he was back in the US, doing an “American” right turn  and not crossing the path of oncoming traffic. He may not have made the mistake if he had been driving during the day, when visibility is better. Given his protestations after the accident, it’s possible to assume he looked at the intersection but didn’t actually see how it was configured.

The second explanation concerns the position of the signals. In left hand drive countries traffic signals are to the right whereas in right hand drive countries the signals are to the left. He may have looked across the intersection at the signal to his left, which was for the other side of the dual carriageway. He should have looked to his right, where he would have seen a red arrow.

Maybe both factors applied.

The third possibility is he didn’t know it’s illegal to turn on a red arrow. Turning on a red arrow is a common reason for failing to pass a DMV driving test in the United States. *

Two years after the accident I married an American and we bought a house in Houston, Texas, where I drive regularly. When approaching intersections I take particular care to  understand how the intersection is designed and which signals or lane markings relate to my lane and which are for other drivers.

I have found the following tips to be helpful when driving on a different side of the road. Please add your own suggestions in the comments to help all us switchers become safer drivers.

  1. The driver must always be in the center of the road. This means the driver faces oncoming traffic.
  2. Be aware of situations where you might be confused such as empty streets (no visual reminders) and car parks (no lanes marked) or coming out of driveways.
  3. It can be difficult to judge the distance of the passenger side from the curb. Look far ahead into the lane to where you want the car to go when driving straight or turning. This will help you center the car in the lane and avoid clipping the curb (my special skill)
  4. If you drive a manual transmission you will be using a different hand to change gears. This can take a while to get used to.
  5. When turning left or right on a dual carriageway across a wide four way intersection remember the lane you are aiming for is the one behind the median (or the center line)

Countries that drive on the left are:

Australia, Caribbean islands, Channel Islands, Cyprus, Japan, Hong Kong, India, Isle of Man, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Malta, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, Thailand, United Kingdom

  • DMV Rules of the Road, 13 April 2013. The video clips from the California DMV channel uploaded to U-Tube by the Khmer News Network.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The "Golden Plaza" in Ikoyi, Lagos. ...

The “Golden Plaza” in Ikoyi, Lagos. On the left the Falomo Bridge to Victoria Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am  amazed by the luxury cars that regularly toil their way through the choked streets of Victoria Island, Lagos. Porsche Cheyennes, Jeeps and Land Rovers are the car of choice for ex-pats and wealthy Nigerians. The car favoured by oil industry executives is an armoured Land Rover, capable of withstanding an armed assault. Taciturn Nigerians trained in security driving ensure the privileged, like me, survive their journey in what is reputed to be one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Amongst the many hazards, dying in a high speed car crash is not one of them. We crawl along, with barely an inch between us and the next car.

This stationary mode of travel is a Godsend for the hawkers who tap on the black tinted windows, wanting to sell pirated movies, magazines, sweets, fruit, nuts and bottles of soft drink. Particularly heart breaking are the beggars, many of whom are blind or  polio victims. They tap on the car window, putting their hands on the glass to peer in. We are under strict instructions not to open the windows or get out of the car under any circumstances, although I’m assuming we can bolt if the car is on fire. Sitting in a car fortress while turning an impassive face to malnourished and disabled children is the worst aspect of living in Lagos. In time I will become accustomed to the pollution, traffic, noise and stifling heat, but I will never become impervious to those tiny peering faces.

Nigerian taxis are banged up yellow and black sedans bearing the dents of peak hour battle, like broken mechanical bees.  I was informed ex-pats cannot use these taxis safely so was amazed to see a young British man alight from one a few days ago, calmly hand over the fare and saunter down the street with his bag slung over his shoulder. Move aside Chuck Norris, the new toughness bar has been set by an unknown skinny British kid, last seen on Victoria Island wearing a Union Jack t-shirt.

The public bus system consists of old yellow mini vans or green and white ones used for mass transport. Passengers  hang their backsides out the side door, which is never closed, so they can jump off near their “stop”. It’s not uncommon for whole bodies to hang out of windows during peak hour. The main bus depot on the Lagos mainland near the airport is a crime hot spot run by “area boys” who extort money from passengers for the right to wait at a stop. However much ex-pats worry about crimes such as robbery and assault, the main victims are Nigerians unable to pay the police for private protection.

Small motorbikes and bike taxis are banned in many areas of the islands as they have a reputation for being used in robberies. The option of using small vehicles is gone, so the congestion continues unabated.

Mainland Lagos has fewer cars as many roads are not paved and walking is the most common way to move around. On the mainland it is common to see large  shanty towns where the lack of running water and basic sanitation causes disease. Along the main roads on the islands shanty towns spring up suddenly but remain small. The inhabitants set up barber shops, foods stalls, magazine stands, photography booths and other businesses. It is common to see a large board set up in the street with numbers on it and young men sitting around. Apparently this is some kind of gambling game with cash prizes. Even though we live in the “wealthy” area, we are never far from the harsh realities of life in Lagos .  I asked about going to the beach which is close to our staff house. It’s a very nice beach, I was assured, but also doubles as a toilet for the shanty towns.  Public toilets don’t exist  in Lagos, which means typhoid can race through the street communities.

Although life in Lagos is difficult, for many it is preferable to the poverty of a rural village. The growing city provides opportunities for education and employment and draws immigrants from all over

 Driving around late at night, with the city lights reflecting on the water, it is possible to sense the bright future that lies ahead for this most idiosyncratic of African cities.

Cool ride by Jeff Corey

Cool ride by Jeff Corey