Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/8/2009 (2655 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
At last the tide has turned. After centuries of huge advances by the rightists, those who drive on the left finally have a victory to celebrate. On Sept. 7, Samoa will stop driving on the right and start driving on the left. Naturally, those who oppose the change are predicting disaster.
"So we just wake up one morning and pull out of our driveways onto the other side of the road, do we?" says Tole'afoa Solomona Toa'iloa, who heads People Against Switching Sides (PASS). "Cars are going to crash, people are going to die, not to mention the huge expense to our small country."
But Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi is not impressed: "All this talk about accidents is just stupid. The 7th and the 8th are holidays to help people get used to it, and after that they'll be driving more carefully than ever because it will be so different." All the nearby islands except American Samoa drive left, he points out, and it's cheaper to import cars from Australia, New Zealand and Japan (which drive on the left) than from the United States.
It's much ado about nothing; I switch back and forth several dozen times a year. My work takes me to both sides of the road, and my family connections divide right down the middle: Canada right, Britain left, France right, South Africa left and Argentina both (left until 1946, right since then). If the steering wheel is on the left side of the car, you drive on the right side of the road, and vice versa. A monkey could do it.
Nevertheless, this is a big deal: the first time any country has switched sides since Burma swung right in 1970 (which made very little sense, since most of the countries around it drive on the left, but Gen. Ne Win's soothsayer told him to do it). And NOBODY has switched from right to left in living memory.
The rightists won because the United States won, and the year of victory was 1946. That was when the U.S. embassy in Beijing threw a party to celebrate the Nationalist Chinese government's decision that China would drive on the right. (Previously most of northern China had driven right, while southern China drove left.) In the same year the project for a Pan-American Highway persuaded the last left-driving hold-outs among the Latin American countries to switch.
Only one-third of the world's 6.7 billion people live in countries that still drive left. That is not likely to change much now, for once you start building high-speed, controlled-access highways, all the concrete you have poured locks you into your existing choice.
How did we end up split like this? There is plenty of historical evidence for both sides. Deeply rutted tracks on one side of an old road from a quarry used in Roman times in England, and shallower ruts on the other side, support the hypothesis that the Romans drove on the left, for example -- but the evidence from other Roman roads in Turkey argues exactly the opposite.
The real answer, probably, is that there was so little long-distance road traffic that you didn't need uniformity. Some bits of the empire drove left and other parts right; who cared?
Indeed, the same situation still pertained in 19th-century Europe. Both Spain and Italy, for example, had a patchwork quilt of local rules. However, most places that had been conquered by Napoleon drove right, while those that had escaped French occupation mostly drove left (Britain, Russia, Portugal, the Austro-Hungarian empire).
It's all over in Europe now. The Bolsheviks took Russia to the right after the First World War (on the roads, at least). Mussolini made all the Italians drive right, and the Spaniards and Portuguese changed over in the 1920s. Hitler forced the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire (Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia) to drive right in the late 1930s, and Sweden and Iceland finally switched in the late 1960s.
And then there's Canada. Part of it (Quebec west to the Rockies) used to belong to the French empire, while the rest (Atlantic provinces in the east and British Columbia in the west) was British more or less from the start. So the central provinces drove on the right, while the extremities drove on the left.
The latter switched to the right in 1922-23 -- but my own native country, Newfoundland, only joined Canada in 1949, so it didn't switch from left to right until 1947. There is a story about how they eased the transition there, however, that may be of assistance to those anxious Samoans.
Newfoundlanders, in the Child's Garden of Canadian Stereotypes, fill the same role as the Laz in Turkey, Karelians in Finland, or Tasmanians in Australia. In just the same way, there are hundreds of "Newfie" jokes about how stunned we are. We laugh and go along with the joke, and then later, at night, we sneak in and strangle their offspring.
The story is that the Newfoundland government was worried about how its people would handle the switch from left to right, until one minister solved the problem. "Let them get used to it a bit at a time," he said. "The people whose names start with A to D can switch on Monday, E to K will switch on Tuesday...."
Gwynne Dyer's latest book, Climate Wars, was published recently in Canada by Random House.