Do Foreign Drivers Need Education Before Getting on the Road

This past weekend, four people were killed by foreign drivers, which has re-opened a debate about whether tourists in New Zealand need education before they drive here.

I think we’re missing the point. It’s an example of where we point the finger at individuals, or groups of individuals, rather than examining the structural or systemic conditions that affect the behaviour of people.

In the case of these four deaths, I would say that two conditions may have been factors in the tragedies: inconsistent road rules and the weird phenomenon that, in different countries, vehicles drive on different sides of the road.

List_of_left-___right-driving_countries___World_StandardsIt got me remembering how, when I’ve visited the USA, driving on the other side of the road messed with my head. It wasn’t just being on the “wrong” side of the road and the car, I found it actually affected my spacial awareness of left and right. Let me try and explain.

In NZ, where we drive on the left side of the road in the right side of the car, when we turn left into a side street, we follow the road around the corner, keeping close to the curbside. Turning into a street on the right, you cross the opposing lane of oncoming traffic. However, in the US and the 65% of countries who drive on the right side of the road and the left side of the car, this relational aspect is reversed — you cross opposing traffic turning left and hug the curb turning right.

The weird thing was this: when people gave directions — “make a left,” make a right,” etc — my brain interpreted as “hug the curb,” “cross opposing traffic,” etc — meaning that I muddled up left and right. It also felt almost impossible to turn left over opposing traffic because my brain wanted a left turn to be a simple following of the curb.

The result was that, for the first few days at least, I felt incredibly disoriented. Luckily, I wasn’t the one driving, but yes we did end up on the wrong side of the road a couple of times fortunately without incident.

Why we drive on different sides of the road has often baffled me. I did some research, and you can see which countries drive on which side of the road here, the fascinating history and politics of side-swapping here and some interesting facts about which side of vehicles we sit to drive here.

The accidents I referred to earlier were not necessarily caused by “side-of-road confusion”, though one of the accidents involved the tourist crossing the centre line. However, both tourists came from right-side driving countries.

The other factor that may have been an influence were road rules. In 2012. NZ changed two unusual give way rules, which were confusing to New Zealanders let alone tourists. While there areinternational standard rules to prevent collisions at sea, there are no such standards in road rules around the world. Ironic.

I never thought I’d be arguing against diversity but it seems to me that, until technology is prevalent enough to prevent accidents on the road, we are stuck with a global variety of ideologies that would be far better for us if they were consistent.


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Philip Patston

Philip Patston began his career 25 years ago as a counsellor and social worker, and he is the founder of  DiversityNZ. Philip lives in New Zealand and is recognised locally and overseas as a social and creative entrepreneur with fifteen years’ experience as a professional, award-winning comedian. His passion is working with people when they want to explore and extend how they think about leadership, diversity, complexity and change. View all posts by Philip Patston

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