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A Little to the Left
September 7, 2009 11:42 PM   Subscribe

The Independent State of Samoa has just 200,000 citizens, but you can be sure many are a little less than placid today. They are undergoing a shift that few nations have done; one that may be as jarring as when Jekyll changes to Hyde. They are about to change lanes. In a big way.

Samoa is the first territory in over 30 years to change which side of the road is driven on (the most recent switch-hitters before them being Nigeria and Ghana. There have been several countries that moved from left-hand driving to right; very few have gone the other way. Most switches have been to accommodate the flow of surrounding countries; Okinawa Prefecture did it to symbolize its return to Japanese control after the US took over.

When Sweden first brought the issue forward in 1955, just over half the citizens voted; however the result was strongly against a change in direction. Twelve years later the change was implemented anyway.

Interestingly, accident rates in Sweden during the first two months were down from the norm; they soon returned to the average rate. This was likely due to the extensive planning, legislation and redesign that was undertaken to increase capacity, rework problem intersections, reduce parked vehicles and change how pedestrians cross. Okinawa was not so fortunate.

The changeover plan in Samoa has not been well received, and could meet with more opposition in the days to come. Many Samoans feel that the current government has not made sufficient preparations; over 18,000 protested in April of 2007. In a one-party country this has not mattered much to the will of the government. Local chiefs, called Matais, do have influence. The government recognises the ancient tribal customs enforced by the Matai as part of modern law. Many Matai are not onside with the planned change; some have vowed to disobey the new traffic laws. Other citizens advocates worry that, since most buses are not allowed to drive (their doors now open onto traffic), many poorer citizens will face difficulty and added expense getting to work.

Early reports indicate things are calm at the moment. Today however was declared a national holiday, so the real test will be when people return to work tomorrow. Sadly, any problems with the transition, or the details of Samoa's underlying issues will likely not register very high on the West's radar.
posted by Hardcore Poser (46 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I knew I would see this on MeFi! (Excellent post btw)

Today, while my boyfriend and I drove back from a technology-free weekend in the mountains we got stuck in traffic that turned our 3 hour trip home into 6 grueling hours of 2nd gear madness. Since we both hadn't heard any NPR for three days, we found a station and let it regurgitate its news stories while we baked in the sun. The Samoan driving switchover story must've come up every 15 minutes at least. It got to be our little joke and routine, somewhat alleviating our growing insanity. The announcer would come on, explain that Samoan's are now driving on the left, and we'd look up at each other and say, "Noooo shit!" Then we'd have the same conversation that we'd just had about it, but each time trying to come up with new angles and different ways to talk about the new information.

He's sleeping right now, but you better believe that he'll be getting an email at work tomorrow morning, with a link to a news story about how Samoans are now driving on the left, but with all sorts of interesting new tidbits, thanks to this thread! I win.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:56 PM on September 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


When sides were chosen a long time ago, was it entirely arbitrary or did people have reasons for left or right (even if those reasons weren't good)? Was left (or right) chosen because that's the way they did it at sea? If so, how was the rule for ships decided?
posted by pracowity at 12:02 AM on September 8, 2009


And do we dress right or left, sir?
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 12:06 AM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Nice post. Worth mentioning that one reason for the change may be that New Zealand and Australia both drive on the left. Relatively speaking, those countries are neighbours of Samoa, and both have large numbers of Samoan immigrants.
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:06 AM on September 8, 2009


Most of my gentlemen favour left.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 12:09 AM on September 8, 2009


Looking at the island in google maps I doubt there is a single overpass in the entire state (Western Samoa has essentially one big-ass ring-road).

Makes more sense to drive on the right in the southern hemisphere tho.

American Somoa's wiki page:

"In March 1889, a German naval force invaded a village in Samoa, and by doing so destroyed some American property. Three American warships then entered the Samoan harbor and were prepared to fire on the three German warships found there. Before guns were fired, a typhoon wrecked both the American and German ships. A compulsory armistice was called because of the lack of warships." . . . d'oh!

I guess the Somoans drove on the right due to being a German colony, until the events of 1914.
posted by Palamedes at 12:12 AM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


The US has a large number of Samoan immigrants as well, and pretty much any Samoan in the islands has family in both commonwealth countries (esp. NZ) and the US. This will mean that family from NZ and Australia can now ship cars to Samoa as remittances, instead of simply sending money.

It's not surprising, either. New Zealand in particular is a pretty major force in a lot of Western Polynesia in terms of providing governmental aid and training. When I was in Samoa, recently, half the New Zealand Air Force was flying into the airport for maneuvers.
posted by barnacles at 12:13 AM on September 8, 2009


On the TV last night they interviewed a taxi driver. He recounted the cost of shipping a US made car at $2500, and hoped being able to source cars from NZ and AU more cheaply (where there are very large Samoan communities) would be a boon.
I think the idea is the change will facilitate getting your cousin in Australia to ship you a less expensive auto than can currently be done from the US or Europe.
posted by bystander at 12:17 AM on September 8, 2009


Not just New Zealand and Australia, but also Japan. There aren't that many Samoans in Japan (except from the occassional sumo fighter), but it is worth noting that Japan is a reliable source of quite new, well-maintained second-hand cars...
posted by Skeptic at 12:19 AM on September 8, 2009


Palamedes: That's just Savai'i. The capital etc is over to the east on the island of Upolu, and no overpasses, true. At the same time, there are plenty more roads all around and not even the entirety of the major roads (those GoogleMaps shows) are paved fully.

The bigger issue is, as mentioned, the lack of accomodation for right-side-entry buses. Many people don't have autos, and yet may have a long commute in from their village to touristy areas, in particular, and also to commercial zones for shoppinng and the buses are the primary means of getting there. I imagine the government will either face some serious backlash in the coming weeks, or will simply order the police to turn a blind eye to leftie/rightie problems, though.
posted by barnacles at 12:19 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Was left (or right) chosen because that's the way they did it at sea? If so, how was the rule for ships decided?

Wiki sez cart-driving with a team of horses has something to do with it. Teamsters would sit on a left-hand horse (to better whip with the right), so they would pass on the right to more easily avoid oncoming traffic.

For horse and foot travel, you'd generally want to present your right side to the traffic, for better defense against attack.
posted by Palamedes at 12:25 AM on September 8, 2009


That's just Savai'i. The capital etc is over to the east on the island of Upolu

yeah, I meant Western Western Samoa ;)
posted by Palamedes at 12:27 AM on September 8, 2009


pracowity: not specific to Samoa, but driving on the left was popular in the past so as to keep your right -sword- arm free.

There is a persistent rumor that the change from driving on the left to driving on the right was instigated by Napoleon - because he was left-handed, his sword arm was the left, but this seems to be a myth. He did however, spread rightism to his conquests.

Wikipedia also has some interesting country-specific facts regarding left/right hand driving: Italy, for example drove on the right in the countryside and the left in major cities until the 1920s!
posted by nielm at 12:31 AM on September 8, 2009


or will simply order the police to turn a blind eye to leftie/rightie problems, though.

or buses could just pull in to stops at an angle to give people protection. If the Samoans operate on the same island time as Hawaii I don't see this blocking traffic becoming a major issue.
posted by Palamedes at 12:33 AM on September 8, 2009


Various hypotheses and observations:

1. You mount a horse from the left. If you want to mount a horse by the side of a the particularly a narrow road, trail or lane, you want it to be facing the the direction you'll be going and you don't want to mount it in the street, so it makes sense to ride on the left.

2. For what it's worth, you mount a bicycle or motorcycle from the left as well, at least that's always where the sidestand is, so the same points apply.

3. A righthanded person wears his scabbard to the left. If you're on the right, your scabbard will whack against gentlemen and ladies passing in the other direction. This could be cause for a duel. If you're on the left it will merely strike the faces of beggars, dirty-faced urchins and other rabble.

4. A gentleman always flips other drivers off with his right hand, so you want that one by the driver's side window. Flipping people off with your left is boorish and could be regarded as an insult.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:37 AM on September 8, 2009 [14 favorites]


When I was in Samoa, recently, half the New Zealand Air Force was flying into the airport for maneuvers.

No way, really? Was it Liam or was it Charlie?
posted by dersins at 12:39 AM on September 8, 2009 [13 favorites]


Palamedes: If the Samoans operate on the same island time as Hawaii I don't see this blocking traffic becoming a major issue.

Heh, Samoans had perfected island time 2000 years before Hawaii was even settled! I agree, the traffic blocking wouldn't be an issue. People would shrug and make do. The issue will be if the police decide to enforce the bus rule.
posted by barnacles at 12:40 AM on September 8, 2009


dersins: No way, really? Was it Liam or was it Charlie?

Hard to tell from the distance, but what with the yellow jandals I'd say Liam.

Actually it was Operation Tropic Astra 09 in case anyone is interested.
posted by barnacles at 12:44 AM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Most of my gentlemen favour left.

I wonder if A impacts B... in one hand (ha!) it seems logical that most gentlemen would favor the side opposite to the throttle/break leg... on the other hand (haha!) that decision is generally made during puberty, somewhat before men start driving cars...

Well, that's one thing to tell my children... "Boy, keep your junk to the left. Otherwise in the future you'll eventually get some crunchage during your morning commute."
posted by qvantamon at 1:34 AM on September 8, 2009


Re: explanations for which side of the road we drive on.

I remembered reading a article ages ago that listed all of the above theories (Napoleon, sword arm, whip etc. etc.) and then confessed that no one really knew, all the theories were just that - theories. My googlefu has failed me but it interesting to note that most pages asserting these theories can be traced back (by reference or similar language) to an old Straight Dope column, a copy of which can be found here.

I suspect that for most countries the answer is "we copied out neighbours / colonizers / etc" and for the small remainder, we may never know.
posted by outlier at 1:45 AM on September 8, 2009


I edit a Pasific affairs show for NZ television, and will be cutting a story on the change over and the following day (or two) for the show on Thursday, should be interesting to see a bit more than the 45 seconds of agency footage I've seen on the news so far.

In NZ and Australia imports from Japan (and Korea more recently) are very easy because they drive on the left. US car imports are more difficult. NZ-new second-hand cars are a massive market here, reasonably new Japanese cars with relatively low mileage and only one or two Japanese owners previously.
posted by sycophant at 2:11 AM on September 8, 2009


When I read from right to left this is a post about aromas.

Not a good speller, r I. Definitely r-roneous.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:49 AM on September 8, 2009


I salute you, the Samoan people! We shan't let Napoleon win!
posted by Sova at 3:48 AM on September 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


Obviously a socialist plot to blah blah blah.
posted by pyrex at 4:29 AM on September 8, 2009


I believe the Japanese 2nd hand auto trade is the result of laws that make it unfavourable to keep cars more than a few years old. I worked with a chap who had a sideline in importing one or two japanese cars a year tht he drove for a short time then sold on.
posted by bystander at 4:42 AM on September 8, 2009


When I was little, I used to wonder if children in England walked down the halls on the left or not. If the Simulation Hypothesis is true, I'll bet that there's a few thousand copies of the Earth spawned about a millennium back just to see how many of them end up driving on the right and how many on the left.
posted by adipocere at 4:52 AM on September 8, 2009


When I was little, I used to wonder if children in England walked down the halls on the left or not.

Yeah, Brits walk on the left too. Living here I've started to do the same.

Its a real mess in touristy places though, like museums. The Brits move to the left and all the Europeans/Americans move to the right and...chaos.
posted by vacapinta at 5:57 AM on September 8, 2009


Italy, for example drove on the right in the countryside and the left in major cities until the 1920s!

I was just imagining how difficult it would be to make the big, once in a lifetime change, but Italy...oy vey. What happened when city met country I wonder?

***boring personal anecdote*** My husband and I recently started parking in the parking lot behind our library because the main lot has become so crowded. This means entering and exiting by a different door. Sure enough every single time we are done checking out our books, I turn left from the circulating desk and aim like the witless old crone that I am for the wrong door. My husband always has to grab my elbow and turn me to the right. I think I would be very, very bad at learning to drive on the "opposide" of the street.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:04 AM on September 8, 2009


Why we drive on the right side of the road.

(I cannot believe I found a place to repost that)
posted by nax at 6:12 AM on September 8, 2009 [5 favorites]


I loved this line in the OP:

"Many Matai are not onside with the planned change; some have vowed to disobey the new traffic laws"

.. because that sounds like a great strategy for dissent, especially on blind corners, with oncoming trucks.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:13 AM on September 8, 2009


There's a "Fear and Loathing / 300-pound Samoan attorney / road trip" joke in here, somewhere, but I haven't had enough caffeine yet to nail it. A little help, please?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:20 AM on September 8, 2009


Its a real mess in touristy places though, like museums. The Brits move to the left and all the Europeans/Americans that don't follow suit are rude and ignorant.
It's the unwritten social contract innit? Whatever country you're in, you walk on the side that matches the driving.
posted by peacay at 7:35 AM on September 8, 2009


Coming from a background of driving horses in the US, one thought for why the driver is on the left hand side is related to the tradition of the Conestoga wagon.

The lead horse was on the left, thus the driver was on the left and thus, passing with the bulk of the wagon on the right and with the divers near each other made passage much more predictable.
posted by mightshould at 8:07 AM on September 8, 2009


Why was the lead horse on the left?
posted by vacapinta at 8:13 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I strongly suspect that in the United States, it's a product of the post-revolutionary francophile craze that influenced city planning.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:29 AM on September 8, 2009


This American boy lived and drove in Sussex for a year. I think I caused more near disasters as a pedestrian than I did behind the wheel (look right before stepping off the kerb, dammit!). The only real awkward moment was when I encountered another car while driving along a long narrow county lane - I instinctively pulled to my right, he instinctively pulled to his left. It took a few minutes to get that sorted out.
posted by squalor at 8:35 AM on September 8, 2009


If the Samoans operate on the same island time as Hawaii...
Obviously you've never driven in Honolulu. I grew up cruising the mean streets of SFO and they ain't got nothing on Kapiolani Blvd and the H1.

There's a "Fear and Loathing / 300-pound Samoan attorney / road trip" joke in here,
No point mentioning these flying foxes. I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough. We had two bags of taro, seventy-five paw-paw, five breadfruit, a salt-shaker full of coconut flake, a whole galaxy full of oka, a quart of pe'epe'e, a quart of coconut cream, a case of crabmeat and two dozen amyls.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 9:40 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


As to why the lead horse was on the left? I don't have time to find any cite, but from experience in driving pairs: When you hold all the reins in one hand, it's in the left hand to leave the right hand available to manage the whip. The left hand then is in a more straight line (instant communication) to the left hand horse.

Horses tend to follow the dominant, or lead in any group/herd.
posted by mightshould at 9:45 AM on September 8, 2009


Re: 'Fear and Loathing' Samoan jokes. A Samoan and a drug-addled author walk into a bar... Sorry, nothing's coming for me either.

If it were Thailand I'd say "We can't stop here. This is baht country!"

Okay, I'll stop.

A related fact to get back on topic: Thailand has 90% of its borders with countries that drive the opposite way. I bet the truckdrivers in neighbouring countries just _love_ driving through on their way to other places. Switching once a trip would be inconvenient. Twice? Sounds like a recipe for collisions.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 9:45 AM on September 8, 2009


we picked up the rental car in nadi, fiji, and set out to find the queens highway, bound for suva. at the 1st intersection i turned on the wipers to make a signal for a left turn. pulling into the intersection, i noticed my wife and daughter were screaming, so i steered back into the left lane. this seemed to have a calming effect on oncoming traffic. ahead lay our 1st roundabout and i entered it like a canoe in a typhoon. after 2 trips around i managed a turn onto a road that led us into a deadend in an east indian squatter settlement, where i, with great relief, handed the keys over to my 15 year old unlicensed daughter who managed the next 185 kilometers without incident.
posted by kitchenrat at 9:53 AM on September 8, 2009


At Law School one of my lecturers told us the story of how Ireland wanted to change from driving on the left to the right after the war (there were a lot of US vehicles left over from WW2 and it would piss the pommes off).

The legislation to implement the change made it through to it's second reading in parliament before the legislature realised the proposed phased approach, with public transport changing on one day and everyone else changing on the next probably wasn't ideal for delivering safety outcomes.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 12:10 PM on September 8, 2009


Worth mentioning that one reason for the change may be that New Zealand and Australia both drive on the left. Relatively speaking, those countries are neighbours of Samoa, and both have large numbers of Samoan immigrants.

That got me wondering how much interplay there is between Samoa and American Samoa, I would figure that there would be more interplay between Samoa and American Samoa and the plusses of having all of Samoa drive on the same side would outweigh any plusses from switching to whatever side NZ drives on. American Samoa drives on the right, of course.

Interesting anecdote is that the *US* Virgin Islands drive on the left - with big ole' US cars. I think that was left over from when Denmark ruled them and they never bothered to switch - might have made life easier since the British Virgin Islands drive on the wriong side of the road too. So I guess if they manage the two Samoas can as well.
posted by xetere at 12:56 PM on September 8, 2009


xetere: That got me wondering how much interplay there is between Samoa and American Samoa, I would figure that there would be more interplay between Samoa and American Samoa and the plusses of having all of Samoa drive on the same side would outweigh any plusses from switching to whatever side NZ drives on. American Samoa drives on the right, of course.

xetere, there's a tremendous amount of interplay between Samoa and American Samoa. Pretty much everyone has family in the other country, and there are plenty of flights back and forth between the two every day. Add into that the Samoan concept of fa'a lavelave, which is an obligation required of family when big familial events (esp. weddings and funerals) occur which requires many of the family members to come together, and you essentially have a border which is only important to politicians and police. The free flow of folks back and forth didn't seem to have any effect worth speaking about traffic safety, in what I saw. Of course, part of that might be that the max speed limit is essentially only about 30 mph / 50 kph.

In my experience, left-side and right-side driving is a kind of context switching that people are pretty good at, especially once you start going back and forth between places that drive on each side. When you've only ever driven on the left side and go to the right, sure there can be some issues, but once you've driven extensively on each side of the road it definitely doesn't seem like quite the same problem that some people make it out to be.
posted by barnacles at 1:46 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


We might drive and walk on the left, but in London at least, we undertake on escalators, and that always seems slightly wrong to me.

On advantage I have of not being able to tell the difference between right and left is that I have no problem switching which side of the road I drive on (us Brits usually have lots of experience of this on European holidays). I've only once tackled a French roundabout the wrong way. Fortunately, no one but my screaming passengers were around to witness it.

One disadvantage of not being able to tell left from right is that I have been known to drive on the right in the UK. Not so great.
posted by Helga-woo at 2:45 PM on September 8, 2009


I was just a boy in American Samoa in the early 1980s but have vivid memories of my father cursing the "Samoan way of driving." I've been many other places in the world, and little can compare with the reckless and carefree way of driving in Samoa, particularly by the Jitney buses (called I'inga buses; not sure of the spelling).

This little adventure can only end one of two ways: either everyone will follow it to the letter of the law, or they will all completely ignore it and keep driving the way they have been for decades. My experience in Samoa makes me think the latter is probably how it's going to play out. Samoans have an...um...unique interpretations of time, rules, laws, and responsibility. Type A personalities seem not to exist in Samoan culture. Part of me wishes I were there (on Western Samoa where this is taking place) to see it happen. From an anthropological perspective, it's fascinating.
posted by mrbarrett.com at 3:39 PM on September 8, 2009


I'm not totally sure if the link will work for overseas viewers, but here is the story I cut about the Samoa road change over. It's not massively informative, but was probably the most amusing pacific affairs story I've ever cut.
posted by sycophant at 4:17 PM on September 10, 2009


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