Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Coming of Road Rage in Samoa

Unless the government backs down, Samoa will change from driving on the right to driving on the left (British Commonwealth style) on September 7:

Shifting the Right of Way to the Left Leaves Some Samoans Feeling Wronged
Government Calls Traffic-Rule Switch 'Common Sense,' but It Sparks Road Rage

This is one of those cases in which it clearly helps everyone to have a clear rule about which side of the road to drive on, and a little government regulation (and even inter-government coordination) can promote efficient traffic flow. (Think of the congestion at the borders at which you had to switch from driving on one side to driving on the other.)

But it isn't obvious that there's a "right" side, especially since Samoa is an island, and doesn't have to coordinate with anyone who can drive to Samoa from somewhere else. (The last country in continental Europe to switch sides--from driving on the left to driving on the right--was Sweden, in 1967.) Here's a nicely written historical account (whose accuracy I can't vouch for): Why do some countries drive on the right and others on the left ?

(I particularly liked their description of the decision in Pakistan: "Pakistan also considered changing to the right in the 1960s, but ultimately decided not to do it. The main argument against the shift was that camel trains often drove through the night while their drivers were dozing. The difficulty in teaching old camels new tricks was decisive in forcing Pakistan to reject the change.")

The government of Samoa believes that the benefits of switching will come from enabling Samoans to buy used cars from the left-driving Australians and New Zealanders.

But the proposal to switch sides is not without costs, since the current stock of cars has the driver sitting on the left, which will make some things (like passing) harder if traffic is switched to the left side of the road. (And of course the current stock of school buses will have to load and unload children from the middle of the street, instead of from the curb.)

It looks like September 7 might be a good day to avoid the roads, if you happen to be in Samoa. (And here's an earlier post on New Zealand traffic rules .)

Update: Samoa switches smoothly to driving on the left
"Samoa is the first country in decades to change the direction of traffic. Iceland and Sweden did it in the 1960s, and Nigeria, Ghana and Yemen did it in the 1970s."

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