After a few years on the road, driving becomes almost like walking for most people—something you can do with very little conscious, direct attention. But put that same person in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road than they’re used to, and it requires almost complete concentration to keep from turning their car directly into oncoming traffic. For Americans, that means driving on the left side of the road in places like the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand.
The biggest difference is arguably not on the roads, but inside the car—it is like Opposite World in there.
Not only are you driving on the “wrong” side of the road from what you’re used to, but all the controls are on the wrong side, too. The blinkers are where the light switch should be, the window controls where the radio should be, the mirrors—well, it’s hard even to describe what happens when you look into a rear-view mirror when everything is already backward.
During breakfast at a B&B outside London several years ago, I made a comment about driving on the “right” side of the road; in true British form our host both heard the pun and took a bit of honest umbrage at it. So since SmarterTravel’s readership is global, and the truth is that driving on the left side of the road is not that uncommon (people in some 75 countries worldwide drive on that side), I’ll use the term “opposite” instead of “wrong” side of the road for the following tips.
Get an Automatic Transmission
In many parts of the world, the majority of rental cars have a manual transmission (that is to say, a stick shift), and rentals of automatic transmission cars are both harder to find and more costly. Nonetheless, if you’re used to driving an automatic transmission at home, it’s worth making an effort to find an automatic car abroad.
I have driven stick-shift rentals (including a massive passenger van) in the U.K. and Japan, and it is challenging but doable. But if you don’t already know how to drive a stick, I would not recommend trying to learn while driving on the opposite side of the road—you may find it truly overwhelming.
Take It Easy
There is defensive driving, and then there is extra-cautious “I don’t know which side of the road I am supposed to be on” driving; opt for the latter. If your defensive driving habits are generally solid, add another layer of care to your usual approach. If you tend to be an aggressive driver, this is a good time to press “pause” on habits like speeding, tailgating, and weaving in and out of lanes.
Get to Know the Car
It’s always wise to familiarize yourself with the pedals, buttons, and other operations of your rental car before pulling out of the lot, but it’s even more important if these functions are on the opposite side of where you expect them. I’d recommend making the first 10 minutes of your car rental more like 15 or 20 minutes so you feel fully comfortable with the vehicle before getting out on the road.
Be Careful at the Beginning of Each Day
I’ve found my first few minutes in the car to be my most uncertain. After a few turns and maybe a roundabout, I feel more confident, but before then it’s almost like starting over each day.
Use caution when heading out first thing in the morning, especially if you haven’t yet had your morning coffee. Taking a walk before you drive might help a bit, as you can reorient yourself to looking for traffic in the opposite direction of what you’re used to.
Allow Extra Time
Even under normal driving conditions, many traffic accidents are caused by people who are in a rush. With your reaction time rendered unreliable by so many changes in variables, you could use a few extra minutes on almost all your drives, even short ones.
Don’t Distract Yourself
Driving while impaired is never a good idea, whether that means being drunk or tired, eating, fiddling with your phone, or keeping an eye on a child in the back seat. Adding such distractions to the already challenging task of driving on the opposite side of the road is just asking for trouble.
Put Your Copilot to Work
On a related note, have fellow passengers take on any tasks not directly related to operating the car, such as reading maps, changing radio stations, checking road signs, and giving reminders at stop signs or traffic lights.
Beware the Roundabout
Known as “traffic circles” in most of the U.S., roundabouts are all over the place in the U.K. and many countries that were formerly part of the British Empire. Anyone who has driven on the opposite side of the road will tell you that circles are the single most confusing thing you will encounter; take these slowly and get your wits about you before entering one.
Be Careful About Pedestrians
The instinct for folks who drive on the right side of the road is to look right for pedestrians stepping into the street very close to the car. While driving on the left side of the road, it is pedestrians on your left who could step in front of your car unexpectedly.
Make Stop Signs and Red Lights Your Friend
At home, traffic lights and stop signs can be annoying roadblocks that slow you down en route to where you’re going, but when driving on the opposite side of the road, they often offer a welcome pause to get your bearings and reorient yourself—a brief breather from the onslaught of reverse stimuli. You might even come to appreciate them.
Use Caution with Mirrors
As mentioned above, getting used to the mirrors may be the trickiest task you will face; everything is reverse of reverse. It can be jarring to look out the left-side mirror and see parked cars whizzing by. When in doubt, turn around and look out the back window to get a direct, unmediated view of what’s actually happening.
Be Extra Careful When Crossing Borders
On a trip a long time ago, a friend and I traveled across the English Channel, and upon arriving on the opposite shore had to switch sides of the road. This can be extremely jarring. In addition, on one side or the other of the border, the controls of your car will be on the wrong side for that country, which is another challenge altogether. Use extra caution if you find yourself in this situation.
Accept That You’ll Make Mistakes
You should assume you are going to make a mistake of some kind at some point, and try to anticipate what you might do in that case. Freaking out, compounding the problem with another error, and succumbing to road rage are generally not your best options when you do. Instead, get yourself into a safe spot, and then figure out how to get yourself back on the correct side of the road.
Buy the Insurance
Even if you normally don’t purchase insurance when renting a car, it’s not a bad idea when you are driving in Opposite World—if only to give you extra peace of mind. To learn more about your options, see 9 Nasty Truths About Car Rental Insurance.
Let Someone Else Drive at First
Navigating out of a strange airport is hard enough without it being your first time on the other side of the car and the other side of the road. Add travel fatigue and jet lag to the mix, and it’s not a good state to tackle the equivalent of writing with your non-dominant hand. You might consider taking a taxi or car share for your first ride from the airport. Especially if you sit in the front seat, this can also help you adjust to the flow of traffic by experiencing it first as a passenger.
Editor’s Note: After this story was published, a SmarterTravel reader wrote in with a 16th tip: “Sign up for a one-hour driving lesson the day before you pick up your car. [Before a recent trip to Ireland,] I Googled driving schools in Dublin. Then I emailed a couple of them, and went with the one that offered to pick me up at my hotel. The instructor took me out to Phoenix Park, and we leisurely drove around the park, using roundabouts and explaining road signs. Best 35 euros I spent the whole three-week trip.”
Another reader, Tom Owens, wrote in with a personal experience from his time living abroad in New Zealand: “One observation I made in my year in NZ is that parking lots in shopping centers caused me to return to old habits, and I would routinely drive on the wrong side. Parking lots don’t have the usual cues, which caused me grief even towards the end of my tenure in NZ.” The lesson? Take special care when motoring around a parking lot in an opposite-side country.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Things Not to Do When Renting a Car
- Car Rental Secrets We Bet You Don’t Know
- 9 Gotchas of Renting a Car in Europe
Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a monthly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the positions of the gas and brake pedals in cars driven on the left side of the road. This error has been corrected.