Before I moved to Australia in July 2017 to start my second diplomatic tour, I was pretty nervous about driving on the left side of the road. I’d done it before: a friend and I had spent a week in 2005 driving a little rental car around the island state of Tasmania. And I’d been a passive observer in 2005 and 2006 while studying at an Australian uni and riding the bus. But actually buying my own car with the steering wheel on the “passenger side?” And driving it around every day? A different story altogether. Colleagues here told me I would get used to it after a few months, and believe it or not, that ended up being true. And the thing that had worried me the most – staying left – was not even the hardest part. After several months, I have finally managed to collect some observations, lessons learned, and tips about driving down under, including what happened the first time I drove my Australian car. Buckle up!
Across most of the world, including North America and most of Europe, drivers sit on the left-hand side of the car and drive on the right side of the road. However, in countries like Australia, Japan, Malaysia, India, Malta, Cyprus, Guyana, the U.K., parts of the Caribbean, and a few others, drivers do the opposite: sit on the right-hand side of the car and drive on the left side of the road.
When you experience switching sides for the first time, it can be incredibly disorienting. Like parting your hair on the wrong side and having that crooked-head feeling all day, but with life and death safety implications. This is particularly true if you’re just arriving in an unfamiliar place after a long period of travel. It’s like renting a car in an unfamiliar city, and as you drive out of the parking garage, you realize you don’t know where you’re going, can’t see out of the side mirrors, and by the way, how do you adjust the damn seat… but worse. Every once in a while, I still rock up, keys in hand, to the passenger side of my own car. (My husband also has a funny story about walking up and opening his Australian Uber driver’s door. Luckily the driver laughed when he realized V was an American and still gave him 5 stars.)
Speaking of my own car: it was a dark and rainy night last August the first time I got behind the wheel, and my goal was just to drive it fifteen minutes across Canberra.
My First Time Driving My Australian Car
As I mentioned previously, I bought my first Australian car more than four months before we came to Post, while I was still in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. We arrived on a Saturday and went straight into a hotel for three weeks because our house wasn’t ready yet.
On Monday, my social sponsor M picked me up from the hotel and took me to work; for the rest of the week the deputy political counselor, J (who ended up being my great friend and ironically sold me our second car earlier this month when she left Post) picked me up for work and took me back to the hotel afterwards.
My colleagues teased me: “When are you going to go get your car?” I hadn’t even seen it. “I don’t want to pay for parking at the hotel,” I stalled. I was working in a brand new job, the bone infection in my foot had just come roaring back, and I was already entering survival mode. I didn’t mind waiting a few extra days to confront my first Aussie driving experience in more than a decade.
Friday night of my first week, day six in Australia, we attended an embassy happy hour near our social sponsor’s apartment. He had retrieved my car from its carer and parked it in his building’s garage. It was time. I really didn’t want to impose any further on others to drive me around (or face a second carless weekend), so it was time to bite the bullet. As we said goodbye, M handed me the keys and wished us a good weekend.
We found our car amongst the others (I recognized it from pictures) and got in. I have to say it is a pretty weird feeling – although actually pretty typical in the Foreign Service – to walk up to a car you own that you have never seen. It didn’t smell like my car, had beeps and chimes the origin of which I couldn’t pinpoint, and I had neither phone charger nor thermos nor hair band inside. But, it was registered to me and insured by me, so it must have been mine!
Not an optical illusion:
I adjusted the seats and mirrors, familiarized myself with the instrumentation, did a cursory check of the lights and gauges, and proceeded to drive out of the underground parking. As soon as we rolled out of the garage, the rain started. I went for the windshield wipers and hit the turn signal. Of course, I remembered, half-grimacing. They’re opposite here!
We still hadn’t set up our cell phone service (because Australia needed a crazy amount of documentation we had to collect before getting on a plan), so, GPS-less, we followed J and her husband who led us back to our hotel. Driving down the rainy boulevard, between hitting the turn signal while trying to clear the windshield, I said to my husband, “I’m doing it!” He agreed. I went back to semi-holding my breath.
I waved goodbye to J as I entered the cramped underground garage and eased into a spot… in no fewer than three awkward maneuvers. And that began my troubled relationship with my oil-leaking, engine light-glowing, heated-leather seating, roof rack-sporting, wide and high-riding, somehow still endearing, steel gray Nissan Murano, who we call Oscar.
It took a couple weeks of barely breathing while driving Oscar before I ever fully exhaled or even turned the radio on. The concentration it took to center myself in my lane and not veer right was intense. Sitting on the right felt crooked, so crooked.
More than nine months later, I look back on those early few months as a time of renewed “new driver” status. You can train yourself to drive on the other side and have it feel normal, just like driving a stick eventually becomes second nature for some of us. In fact, you can get so used to it, as I have, that you’re intimidated to return back to the other side!
Here are 20 things I’ve learned about driving successfully in Oz. Enjoy!
1. Some Things Are The Same. Not everything about driving in Australia will feel brand new. When getting into an unfamiliar car, you should still take a few minutes to readjust the seats and mirrors, orient yourself to instrumentation, and figure out what side the gas tank’s on. Make yourself comfortable. Especially if you’ve been driving for years already, you will be able to draw on your honed concentration and defensive driving skills, just like at home. You will still need to drive according to road and weather conditions, as well as to your vehicle’s capability and your own experience level. And of course, wearing seatbelts, keeping your blood alcohol limit below 0.05%, and not using a handheld device (including at stoplights) are familiar laws of the land.
2. But You’re Not at Home. Let’s restate the obvious: Australians drive on the left side of the road. It’s not weird, or crazy. It’s as normal to them as driving on the right is to us. (And they get intimidated when contemplating U.S. driving, too.) When push comes to shove, the instincts of a right side driver – in a situation when you don’t have time to do anything but react – may come out backwards in Australia. And there are special hazards here that require extra attentiveness.
You know what else is backwards? Like I foreshadowed above: the placement of the turn signal and the windshield wipers on the steering column. Another reminder that you are vulnerable to split-second reactions that will be wrong. If you are trying to indicate a turn and suddenly have dry wipers scraping across your windshield, try to control your fluster reaction so you don’t do something dumb. The instinct to “correct” by swerving back to the right is stronger than you think.
My first day driving to the embassy from our hotel (day nine in Australia), I went to make a right turn from the far right lane instead of the rightmost left lane, not initially noticing I had pulled into oncoming traffic. A bus pulled up about fifteen yards from my front bumper and flashed its headlights. “$&/@!” I muttered, feeling like an idiot. The driver put his hand up in a typical forgiving Aussie “she’ll be right, mate” gesture, which made me want to apologize even more.
If you find yourself new to left side driving, take care to avoid distractions and approach driving with greater than average caution. Keep both hands on the wheel, and both eyes on the road: you are likely at some point to encounter a poor driver – even a local one – who you need to stay clear of.
3. My Biggest Challenge: Centering in the Lane. When I was contemplating driving in Australia, I always expected the biggest challenge would be “staying left.” And it is challenging, definitely. It takes some getting used to. I have had a couple of freak-out moments on empty two lane highways where a car crests the horizon and approaches as I clench my jaw, imagining a game of chicken that no one is actually playing.
However, the biggest challenge by far has been centering my car in the lane as I operate from a front right driver’s seat. The left side dimensions of the car feel mysterious and unexplored. Who knows where the damn thing ends! And especially because Oscar is relatively large and wide anyway, driving at first felt like I was going to take out trees, mailboxes, or anything else roughly aligned with the front passenger seat.
In reality, I haven’t so much as bumped a curb or the side view mirror while parking in our home garage, even though there’s only about 2″ of clearance on either side of the brick entrance. As a North American driver, there’s a certain place on the road you expect your eyes to fall, but if you drive like that in Australia you’ll be infringing on the lane or shoulder to your left. I still have to stay vigilant to prevent “drift.” I think the trick is to look at the center of the lane in the distance, as you have a tendency to drive towards where you’re looking.
4. Being a Left Side Passenger Feels Out of Control. Sitting in the front left seat as a passenger is unnerving too: the rear view mirror is somehow completely inaccessible, and I feel like my husband is about to catch the left tires on a rough patch of shoulder. He tends to hug the left side of the lane, while my tactic is to stay about a foot or so from the center to my right. As we have both familiarized ourselves with our cars’ dimensions and gotten more skillful, our centering has improved. We still have a side view mirror on the left side, which I’ll call a win.
5. The Slow Lane is on the Left. This one took a little getting used to. In the same way U.S. drivers get frustrated with drivers who travel in the fast lane and won’t move over to be passed, Australians expect drivers who aren’t passing to travel in the left lane. You can even be ticketed for passing on the left (they call it “overtaking”), or for traveling on the right without passing, on roads with a speed limit of 80 kmph or higher.
The lane setup goes with the car setup too. This didn’t occur to me until I talked to someone who drives an American-spec car here. When you’re on a two lane highway with only one lane of traffic traveling in each direction, you will be glad as the driver that you’re sitting on the right side of the car. Otherwise, you would not have safe visibility towards oncoming traffic, nor be able to execute a safe passing maneuver. Which lane is the “slow” vs. “fast” lane is also something to consider when you’re merging onto or exiting a roadway.
6. No Stop-and-Go on Red. In most U.S. states, you can stop on a red light and then proceed with your right turn if the coast is clear. In Australia, right turns are across oncoming traffic, so you can’t. At some intersections, you can stop and then make a left turn, but usually only in places with a slip lane or where it’s otherwise marked. Right turns in general, especially when you’re not at an intersection, can be tricky, because my American-trained brain only expects oncoming traffic to approach when I’m making a left turn.
I humbly admit that I have come very close on two separate occasions to causing an accident when I turned right too close in front of oncoming traffic. In both cases I didn’t perceive the situation correctly, and in both cases the solid defensive driving skills of the other driver made it a near miss. (I think I may have built up some good karma from turning potential crashes into near-misses with solid driving myself over the years in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.)
7. Roundabouts, and More Roundabouts. Australia has lots of roundabouts, and Canberra in particular is known for them. (According to the Curious Canberra podcast, Canberra actually has a whopping 406 roundabouts! I’m not sure how that compares to other Australian cities, but per capita it feels like Canberra wins.) Roundabouts can be intimidating for North American drivers, who may have limited or no experience with them; I remember when my small northern California hometown got one in the late 2000s and everyone called it a “rotary.” Of course it was counter-clockwise, but people still lost their minds. I myself went in one in Tasmania and circled around, a little terrified, a few times before I figured out how to safely exit.
Now that seems funny to me because even the multi-lane roundabouts aren’t too hard when drivers (a) use turn signals and (b) understand and adhere to right-of-way rules.
I’m of two minds regarding roundabouts’ effect on traffic. On the one hand, it’s nice to not have four-way stops that clog traffic. Also, less lights mean less electricity costs and less repairs and maintenance. On the other hand, because Australian traffic enters a roundabout clockwise and everyone has to yield to cars coming from their right, the cars trying to enter from the far left (if the roundabout were the face of a clock, those cars would be sitting at about 9:00) sometimes have a tough time getting their turn. The good news is that I’m not as afraid of roundabouts as I used to be. The image below is from New South Wales Roads and Maritime Services and shows the rules for safely using a roundabout – to proceed straight, make left or right turns, or even hang a U.
8. No “Margin of Acceptability” for Speeding. Speeding in Australia is not acceptable. There are both fixed and mobile speed cameras all over the place – some signposted, and some not. For U.S. drivers used to staying roughly between 78 and 82 in a 70 mph zone and not getting a ticket, I can tell you definitively that doesn’t fly here. I had never, ever had a speeding ticket in my 24 years on the road, and so I was dumbfounded back in February to receive a ticket in the mail for going 88 kmph in an 80 kmph zone. The fine was $217 USD for going the equivalent of 54.5 mph in a 50 mph zone. It was so absurd that I couldn’t believe it. Dangerous? Not on your life. Unlawful? Apparently so.
My American friends (after laughing hysterically because they thought I was kidding) got all up in arms and told me to fight it. I guess you could say I have the opposite of a “speed demon” reputation. I checked the location and my calendar from that day. Yep, it was me. And bad press on foreign diplomats in Canberra not paying their tickets to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars keeps popping up in recent years. So I paid the ticket, online and early.
Although there is technically no “margin of acceptability” for speeding, my Australian friends told me that I probably got the ticket because I hit the 10% window of excess. It is the lowest possible category of speeding according to the Australian demerit system, so they just barely got me. I can’t imagine how expensive it would have been had I really been speeding. (Can you imagine getting a ticket for going 54.5 in a 50!?)
You know when you’re on a U.S. highway with a speed limit of 55 and you’re behind someone who’s going 53? That is pretty much how it feels to drive in Canberra, and now I know why. People are terrified of the high fines, and of the demerits: after a dozen demerits in a three year period, your license is gone. Australian authorities *really* do not want drivers to exceed the speed limits.
The bottom line is that Australia on the whole sees relatively high per capita numbers of fatal traffic accidents each year, and speed is often a major factor. Speeding can also be harmful to native wildlife that may enter the roadway. So save yourself a couple bucks, throttle back, and even set the cruise control to avoid inattentiveness through speed traps. Even if you don’t agree with a particular law in a country where you’re serving, I think as a diplomat you always have to show respect to the host country and pick your battles. This isn’t one to go to the wall on.
9. Roos on the Loose. Driving through Australia, it’s impossible to miss signs warning of wildlife hazards to motorists.
Kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, wombats, and even emus become roadkill daily in Australia, and besides the fact that it’s sad, sometimes those crashes are fatal to humans too. These animals are particularly active at dusk and dawn and more likely to be in roadways.
On a 75 minute drive from Canberra to Cooma about six months ago, I grimly counted more than 30 roadkill kangaroos before I gave up. When I’m out on highways especially, I’m always scanning for animals. So I wasn’t surprised last Saturday night on a rural road when three kangaroos bounced out of the dark about 15 yards in front of my car. I was ready.
10. Good Samaritans. Many a Good Samaritan in the U.S. has hesitated to offer assistance when happening upon a road accident, due to the particularly litigious nature of our society. However, Australian law protects Good Samaritans who render aid in good faith. Good to know.
11. Toll Roads. Many highways and motorways in Australia are cashless toll roads. There are no toll booths – you have to set up an online account and get a transponder tag to mount on your windshield.
The first time we drove to New South Wales I hadn’t yet set this up. I nervously looked alongside the roadside for a place to pay, but didn’t find one. Roadsigns pointed me to a website address. I went online within three days as required, entered my license plate, and saw toll road charges of A$27! Good thing I checked. I didn’t see the toll road zappers, but later learned they are mounted above the motorways.
Now both of our cars have e-toll tags linked to an account that bills me monthly, but if you’re just passing through, be keen for signs that will tell you where you can check for your toll fees before they come toll fines.
12. Next Level Paid Parking. One thing that has surprised us here is paid parking. One might expect to pay for city street parking downtown, or even in a mall garage. But in suburban parking lots when you go grocery shopping, to the movies, or to the dentist?! It can be annoying. Free diplomatic parking is rare. I sometimes book salon appointments on Sunday when parking is free.
The lots that peeve me the most are the ones with the red “Wilson” signage that alerts me that I have to prepay and put the ticket on my dashboard. How do I know how long I’ll be in that doctor’s office?! And by the time I arrive, I have like 3 minutes before I’m late. Good thing I have a Ziploc bag of coins in my car (that doesn’t look like much, but probably tops A$25!) I could understand this more if Canberra were very urban, but since it’s more of a suburban town, this smells like revenue collection to me.
The *good* thing about parking in Australia is that people will routinely wait for you to park without honking or impatiently ripping around you. I am one of those people who has been afraid at times to get a spot if it means people will have to sit there and wait. Australia has cured me of that.
13. Aussie Road Signs Are Entertaining. This may deserve a blog post of its own. I have been reading the signs here for months and some of them capture the Aussie spirit and sense of humor so well. DRIVE N TEXT, UB NEXT.
One lightboard on the way to work alternates messages daily, flipping back and forth between “PUT THE PHONE DOWN” and THAT TEXT CAN WAIT!” Yesterday I saw “SPEEDING KILLS” followed by “IF YOU THINK IT’S A THRILL, YOU’RE A DILL!” The first time I saw that, I burst out laughing.
Others are more somber: “LOCALS ARE DYING ON COUNTRY ROADS. SLOW DOWN!” and “ALCOHOL + SPEED = DEAD AHEAD.” Tonight I saw: “DRINK DRIVE – DIE IN A DITCH” and “SHOULD YOU BE DRIVING?”
If I can find a safe way to capture some photos of these signs and others, I will post them separately.
14. Your Mileage May Vary. Australia’s population of 25 million is primarily located along its coastal city areas. That leaves lots of wide open country to traverse. This is a romantic idea, and as such, attracts all manner of half-assery.
I’m no expert, because I’ve not travelled the outback by any other means than just flying in and out. But I do know that many roads throughout the center of the country redefine rural, requiring drivers to not only have all-wheel drive, but in some cases to provide their own fuel, food, and water provisions for days on end in some of the most brutal terrain and weather you can imagine. Also, many secondary roads are unsealed and lack a center divide, making accidents both more likely and more deadly.
Before you attempt a major east-west Australian road trip, please plan ahead and do your due diligence. Anticipate how it would feel to drive a flat road for more than 1,200 miles and learn about “highway hypnosis”. Make sure you have the skills and knowledge to deal with whatever arises. How will you deal with a medical emergency? Will you offer aid to stranded motorists? Where will you sleep and use the bathroom? This is NOT Route 66 across the U.S.: this is expert level, satellite-phone and extra-tires-carrying travel.
15. Pump First, Pay Later. Yes, in some ways, Australian petrol stations (“servos”) are a flashback to my California childhood. But I didn’t know this at first, which became apparent the first time I went to gas up.
I pulled up to the pump and tried to figure out where to put my card. After a few moments of puzzlement, I went inside. I asked to put A$80 on pump whatever, and said there would probably be change. The girl blinked and looked at the pumps. “Did you want to pay cash or EFTPOS?” she asked. “Either is fine,” I replied, “but I don’t know how much it will be.” She stared.
Some more back and forth occurred and after a second trip in when she looked at me blankly and asked why I hadn’t yet pumped, I finally realized that I had to pump the gas first. So weird!! It has been so many years since I’ve been somewhere that pumps would activate without prepayment (or at least, preauthorization) that it literally didn’t occur to me that Australians would permit it. The joke was on me! I recently saw someone leave a gas station without paying and get chased by the attendant. Yeah, that was the first time in about 30 years I’ve seen that, so I think changes will be coming here eventually too.
16. Bicyclists on the Highway. I’m all for eco-friendly transport, but was a little taken aback by bicyclists and bike lanes on what I would consider a freeway. It gets particularly dicey at night, during rush hour, and when bicyclists have to cross over onramps that interrupt the shoulder and consequently, their lane. For the most part, everyone is attentive and this seems to work well. But I personally wouldn’t advise anyone to ride that way, especially after I saw a bicyclist nearly struck a few months back in a totally unavoidable situation that could have ended up fatally for the rider.
17. Staying Left: For Pedestrians, Too. I noticed this when living here before: people tend to walk on the same side they drive on. When walking on the sidewalk, in the mall, on an escalator or staircase: stay left, and pass on the right. Even though the embassy is crawling with Americans, we tend to stick to the Australian way and it avoids collisions on the stairs. Be cognizant of this directional advice, especially when walking in outdoor places that are shared walking/biking/car areas.
18. Random Breath Testing (RBT). As I mentioned in a prior post, sobriety checkpoints are common here, and I got caught in one in the middle of the day on Easter Monday. Of course, I had not been drinking, but it was still a little unnerving. The cop who stopped me had a handheld device (I think it was orange or yellow) that was the size of a large walkie talkie. He held it next to my face, and told me to count to ten. Not understanding, I started to blow on it (wrong!). Fortunately he didn’t take my lack of familiarity the wrong way (maybe it was my diplomatic plates and California accent??), and gave me another chance. The legal limit for blood alcohol in Australia is 0.05% across all states and territories, unless you’re on a learner’s permit or provisional license, and in that case you better be blowing triple zeroes.
19. The DMV is Kind of Awesome. I’ve had to go to “Access Canberra” locations three times – once to get my ACT driver’s license, and once for each of my cars to transfer the diplomatic registration (rego) to myself from the prior owner. You walk in, touch a screen for what service you need, and the machine prints a ticket with a letter and number. When your number is called, you go to the relevant desk.
The staff are calm, courteous, and efficient. I have been there as long as an hour, and as little as 15 minutes. It is kind of amazing to see government run like a private, modern company. Nothing like the rudeness, incompetence, and upset I have experienced at DMVs in VA, DC, and CA previously. Once we had a staff member apologize to us that it was taking so long, after we had been at her window for literally two minutes. And at the end, you can go back to the touch screen with your number slip and scan the barcode to provide feedback on the service you received. Imagine! I don’t think the good treatment is because we are diplomats – I think they just do high quality work.
And speaking of driver’s licenses…
20. Your American Driver’s License... is lawful to drive on here, for 90 days. Does that mean you’re going to be as skilled as someone who learned to drive here? Probably not. At least, not at first. But at least you’ll be lawful!
Here’s my second Aussie (and third overall) car, acquired in mid-May from our friends who departed Post. Welcome Penny! It’s a 2015 Holden Trax (similar to a Chevy Equinox on the U.S. market.)
All I can say about the color is… Australians are pretty keen on orange cars. I’m going to go ahead and call it copper. They aren’t even unusual here. (I saw four orange SUVs on my lunch break alone today, and two of them were straight up NEON.)
Sometimes in the Foreign Service, you have to find what there is. Jokes about the color aside, I’m SO grateful for a three year old car that has been excellently maintained and runs great! (BTW, Oscar’s engine light has been steadily glowing since last October, although the car is still running like a champ.)
Happy driving on the left!