Where left is right: Terror behind the wheel (Down Under) – Melbourne, Sydney, Australia
In 40 years of life and extensive traveling, I’ve experienced many things that my homebound friends never have. Driving on the opposite side of the road wasn’t one of them – until now. To be honest, it was something I was actively avoiding and could have lived a full and complete life without experiencing, but the planets aligned the wrong way and I was about to rent a car for a circuitous solo road trip from Melbourne to Sydney. This would be a journey of about 450 miles had I gone directly, but my plan was to set out in the opposite direction to check out Australia’s Great Ocean Road first.
I’ll admit I was rather nervous about driving in a mirror image of everything I’ve known before. Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I had logged several hundred thousand miles on the road before I ditched my auto-dependent life and moved to New York City. The stress of LA's traffic ate away at both my soul and my sanity. That would be nothing compared to the stress of beginning my left side driving career in the dead center of Australia's second largest city.
Had I sensibly chosen to pick up my four-day rental near the airport, it would have been easier. It also would have taken a good chunk of extra time since my hotel was only two blocks from the downtown location of the rental firm. In retrospect, getting used to this opposite orientation would have been gentler on some lonely airport road, but I jumped in face first.
I’m a bit of a gambler who scoffs at car renters who prudently choose the Collision Damage Waiver option. Besides, I got such a great deal on this car that paying for the extra insurance would literally have doubled the price. My lack of patience, multiplied by my cheapness, left me starting this long journey in the most hectic possible location, and barely insured to boot.
I checked out of my hotel. Within five minutes I was at the counter of the agency in the parking garage of a downtown building. After the normal bit of paperwork, I was handed the keys to the small car that rescue teams might soon be prying open with the Jaws of Life if things didn’t go well. I nervously asked the attendant for instructions on getting out of town in the direction I wanted to go, and I breathed a big sigh of relief when they sounded so easy. I also asked for any words of wisdom for a first time left hand driver. He had none. I mistook this as a signal that I was getting myself worked up for nothing.
I bounded out to my little red car, used the remote to unlock the doors and confidently jumped in. I’m sure it took less than half a second to realize that I was now sitting in the passenger seat since the steering wheel was so easy to spot a couple feet away on the right side of the car. This was the first troubling omen, but it wouldn’t be the last. Fortunately, the garage was almost empty. I didn’t even need to employ the brave “I meant to do that” look as I climbed out, slithered around behind the car and wedged myself into my new home for the next four days.
Here it was, the moment of truth. Even adjusting the rearview mirror with my left hand felt strange. I briefly wondered if I could twist the mirror around completely and then position myself in front of it, looking backward so I could drive seeing my normal perspective, but that was the panic doing the thinking and it never would have worked anyway.
I couldn’t stall any longer. I had a few hundred miles to travel before sundown. It was now or never. The attendant’s instructions were simple: turn right out of the garage, make the first left onto the main street, then take a right on Flinders Street and follow the signs straight ahead until I’m on the highway. It could have been worse, I thought to myself.
Backing out of the parking spot was a little awkward, but I was underway. I made the right turn onto the empty side street and prepared for the quick left onto the far busier Swanson Street. I smartly made that turn and for a couple of seconds, I wondered why I had made such a big deal about this. All I had to do was turn right on Flinders, if I chose my lane carefully, it would be a straight shot for the next 30 miles. Then – all hell broke loose.
Even though I had been walking around central Melbourne for the previous three days, I suddenly forgot that every other street was the “Little” version of the next street over. I was temporarily in shock to see “Little Flinders Street” just ahead. Wait, I want Big Flinders Street, right? This seemingly minor hiccup caused just enough panic to throw me off plan completely. If this fateful moment had involved a left turn tightly around a corner instead of a big, sweeping right turn from the middle of one major street onto the middle of another major street, it would have been easy.
So I choked, but erred on the side of caution. Rather than risk causing a major accident and/or sending my rented car into a violent end-over-end vertical roll, I chose to carry on straight ahead and find a new way onto that highway that had just barely eluded me a few seconds earlier. Unfortunately, I was already on a bridge crossing over the mighty Yarra River that runs through Melbourne. Suddenly I was in a completely different part of town, in a land the grid system had forgot.
It wasn't until this very moment that it occurred to me that I had no road map, except for the pitiful one from the rental agency, where the only details were major highway numbers nearly crowded off the page by motel advertisements. I shouldn’t have needed a detailed map since my surface street driving in Melbourne was only scheduled to last about three minutes and three turns before merging onto the highway out of town.
I knew I needed to take a right turn, go a few blocks, make another right turn, I would be more or less on track. Easier said than done, particularly since right turns were my new Achilles heel in left side driving. The next few miles are a labyrinthine blur at this point. Nothing I tried worked. I was helplessly moving way too quickly through this dense suburban area in the exact opposite direction of my goal.
Fifteen minutes later, I was well north and east of where I started. My original intention was to go south and west. I briefly considered skipping the Great Ocean Road altogether, heading straight to Sydney. Was it worth giving up on a day and a half of travel plans because I was temporarily drowning in the confusion of how to turn around and find a proper highway? No – not yet, anyway.
You might be wondering why I didn’t simply pull over to the side of the road, get my bearings and ask for directions. This part surprised me too. Pulling over to the side when you are driving in a mirror image isn’t easy. An experienced right-hand driver’s natural reaction is to ease over to the right, find a parking lot, or at least an empty piece of the curb. Flipping that procedure to the left is contrary and difficult. Accounting for the extra few feet of your own car to your left is disorienting in heavy traffic. If I’d seen a welcoming petrol station on my left, I would have pulled in, but luck wasn’t on my side.
I’d been driving about 45 minutes. I think I had gone a minimum of 15 miles in the wrong direction, which isn’t so terrible, when you are unaware of it, but I was painfully present to the fact that every mile I drove was making a frustrating mistake that much worse. In Los Angeles major freeways are rarely more than five or six miles apart. Melbourne isn’t Los Angeles.
Wait – what’s that up ahead? Is that some kind of freeway? Yes, yes, I think it is! All I had to do was figure out which direction I wanted to go in, then which lane I needed to be in to achieve that goal. Since I was far east of my target, it was easy to determine I wanted to head west. Finally something went right (or is that left?). I remember laughing out loud when I entered the on-ramp to an actual freeway. To make things sweeter, this freeway was listed on the edge of the ultra vague map the rental company had given me.
I had done it! All I needed to do was look for another freeway connection about 10 miles up, then 15 miles later, I would be somewhat on the edge of Melbourne where I started from. This time I was on the highway. Hooray! From there, everything was easier.
It took me most of day one to wean myself off the three-step process for signaling my next move. When I wanted to change lanes or make a turn, I started out with: Step One – Turn on the windshield wipers to high speed for a left turn, or intermittent if I wanted to go right. Step Two – As the wipers mocked me, I would realize I had to turn them off. Step Three – Use the big handle on the other side of the steering wheel to indicate my intention.
Since I’m writing this, it’s obvious I survived the rest of the trip. The Great Ocean Road was great after a bit of a dull start. I reached the Twelve Apostles rock formation during the “golden hour” – before dusk, I took some fantastic photos. The next four days went more smoothly. My biggest complication was my continued attempts to enter the car via the passenger side.
I could barely believe the stress of those first two hours. I consider myself an excellent driver. I try to make myself feel better about this by justifying that all my previous experience has made right-side driving – an unconscious activity. Flipping it is like being born again – maybe.
Here’s my advice. Pick your first opposite side car up somewhere other than the center of a busy city, get yourself a decent map, and don’t dismiss the Collision Damage Waiver option without careful consideration.
Roger Wade is a freelance writer and slacker living in New York City.