Monday, June 15, 2009

Rules of the Road

When a flock of sheep are coming toward you on a country road, what should you do?

This is not the opening line for a rude joke about farm animals. It's an actual question from the New Zealand Transport Agency's driving test. And as an urban American, it’s a question I never seriously considered. “Run screaming in the opposite direction,” crossed my mind, as did a scenario in which I pressed on the accelerator, hollering “EAT THIS, BITCH” as I attempted to execute as many potential lamb chops as possible before totaling my car.

Neither of these answers, however, appears among the multiple choice options. The real answer is something boring about slowing down and having a chat with a farmer, which is another situation that city life never prepared me for. But then again, living in a new country requires us to deal with all sorts of strange and unusual customs.

Such as driving on the left.

I’ve actually been a licensed New Zealand driver for some time now, but it’s taken me nearly two years to gather the courage to actually learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road. My excuses were many and varied: first, I was too pregnant (and thus too hormonal) to cope with the stress. Then, I was too busy breastfeeding our new baby approximately 900 times a day. Most recently, I was running a youth hostel and my job required me to stay at home and snarl at backpackers, so there just wasn’t any point to it.

All of these, of course, are fabrications. The real reason I never learned to drive is that I’m terrified of roundabouts.

The roundabout, as far as I can tell, is a sort of carnival fun ride in which all the drivers spin around in a circle, flash their lights with no apparent purpose, then shoot off, possessed by a violent centrifugal death force. It does not look fun at all to me. It looks like a maelstrom of the road.

And so I’ve quite handily avoided driving on the left, along with all the challenges it entails. To begin with, you are required to drive on the passenger side of the car, where some joker has mistakenly installed a steering wheel. You must shift gears with your left hand. The turn signals are inverted, which is irrelevant anyway because every time you try to use them, you activate the windshield wipers. And of course, everyone expects you to drive on the wrong side of the road.

Despite these obstacles, it finally occurred to me that I would either have to spend the foreseeable future at home with a baby, watching him unspool the toilet paper across the bathroom floor, or I would have to gather my courage and learn to drive. This weekend, I had my first lesson.

Perhaps it wasn’t prudent to begin learning at night, in a strange part of town, with the baby crying in the backseat. We’d been out all afternoon, and Silas was tired and cranky, and his diaper was soaked through. But I was determined to practice. And on the whole, our lesson had been going rather well. I’d driven straight across town with no collisions, and I’d even negotiated a few roundabouts. I’d also discovered a trick: driving on the left is very similar to driving on the right, as long as you don’t stop, turn, or change lanes.

Then, as usual, Peter ruined everything.

“Pull into this parking lot,” he instructed.

“But then I’d have to stop and slow down,” I protested. “Can’t I just stay on this street? It’s so straight.”

“Pull into the parking lot,” he repeated. “It’s good practice.”

“What’s that man doing there?” I asked, as I eased the car off the road. “Why is he holding a chain?”

What he was doing, as it turned out, was closing off the parking lot for the night, presumably so that it would not be invaded by idiot Americans who didn’t know how to drive.

Peter kept his voice calm. “OK,” he began. “So now you’re going to have to back up, watching for traffic, and move on to the next parking lot.”

“Got it,” I said. “No problem.” I’m an experienced driver, after all. I’ve had my American license for almost twenty years. Quickly and confidently, I popped the car into reverse and backed into traffic, then shifted forward and headed down the road. And that’s when Peter started screaming.

“LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!” he shrieked, swinging an imaginary steering wheel in front of him.

There is a strange thing that happens when all your driving instincts, built over a period of decades, must be altered in some fundamental way. I had executed a three-point turn just exactly the way I’d done it hundreds of times in the past, and yet all of a sudden, my husband was bellowing and making clawing motions at the dashboard. My mind went blank. Left, right, or round and round, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. All I knew was that he was insistently pointing at danger, and that danger was directly ahead of us.

Clearly, he wanted me to turn. So I signaled. And turned on the windshield wipers.


So then I made a U-turn. Into oncoming traffic.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?????” squealed Peter, in the high-pitched whine of a frightened little girl.

He tried grabbing the steering wheel, but at that moment, the haze lifted. It occurred to me that I was turning in an imprudent direction. So I corrected my course and drove on. I switched off the windshield wipers. I turned into a quiet street. And then I started to cry.

Silas, on the other hand, had gone to sleep. And Peter? He’ll get over it. As soon as we extract his fingernails from the dashboard, he’ll be back to his old self in no time.


  1. I've already been worried about getting behind the wheel of a car instead of a boat when we're back in the states this summer. Now I'm not sure if I'm going to avoid driving entirely (honey? hows 'bout doing the next 2,600 miles yourself?) or just be grateful at least the stick-to-the-right instinct will pay off. at least you have diapers in your court. I'll be listening to "I have to go potty NOW! Where can we stop?" at least two dozen times between Arizona and Michigan.

  2. The first (and subsequent) time(s) I drove in the UK I used this simple trick to keep on the right (left) side of the road. "If you are comfortable, you're about to die". It worked reasonably well until I actually got comfortable, then I started swerving back to the right side of the road for no reason. There's just no winning.

  3. Just keep in mind... the wheel stays towards the center of the road. Regardless of Northern/Southern hemisphere local. The steering wheel should be towards the roads middle. If not, then you've spaced out.

    Really this isn't so diiferent than a sailor sorting out how the winds reacts to passing fronts. Before the's approximately from the equator, after the frontal passage, wind is from the direction of the relevant pole.

    Basic driving savy is fundamentally the same.