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
By PATRICK BARTA
APIA, Samoa -- Sometime in the early morning hours of Sept. 7, residents of this small Pacific island nation will stop their cars, take a deep breath, and do something most people would think is suicidal: Start driving on the other side of the road.
Samoa is about to become what's believed to be the first nation since the 1970s to order its drivers to switch from one side of the road to the other. That's spawned an islandwide case of road rage. Opponents have organized two of the biggest protests in Samoan history, and a new activist group -- People Against Switching Sides, or PASS -- has geared up to fight the plan.
The prime minister who hatched Samoa's scheme, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, refuses to do a U-turn. Road-switch opponents are just trying to rattle the government, he says. He has compared a prominent opponent of the switch to a local "avaava" fish -- a sea creature that swims in shallow waters and eats garbage, an insult in Samoan culture.
The main reason for Samoa's switch is that two of its biggest neighbors, Australia and New Zealand, drive on the left-hand side, whereas Samoa currently drives on the right, as in the U.S. By aligning with Australia and New Zealand, the prime minister says, it will be easier for poor Samoans to get cheap hand-me-down cars from the 170,000 or so Samoans who live in those two countries. It could also help more people escape tsunamis, says Mr. Tuilaepa.
It all "makes common sense," says Mr. Tuilaepa in an interview in his office overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the capital city of Apia. Mr. Tuilaepa, who sports a wave of fluffy whitening hair and wears flip-flops, has run the country for more than a decade.
Opponents and some outside experts fear the switch will turn many of Samoa's already-dangerous roads into disaster zones. Roads wind through mountainous jungle terrain with sharp turns, few traffic lights and pedestrians and dogs sharing the lanes. Critics say the switch will add further confusion with drivers likely to forget which side they're supposed to be on.
The move will also add costs -- like carving new doors into buses so passengers can get off on the opposite side of the road -- that critics say are unnecessary in a country heavily reliant on foreign aid.
For car owners, the switch is also expected to drive the value of their vehicles off a cliff, since about 14,000 of the country's 18,000 vehicles are designed to drive on the right. Although such cars will be allowed after the changeover, they are likely to become less desirable.
"To be really quite frank, we find [the change] ridiculous," says Sina Retzlaff-Lima, whose Apia Rentals rental-car company has 40 cars made for driving on the right side of the road.
Globally, about 70% of the world's population drives on the right-hand side of the road. But other parts of the world -- including many countries that were once British colonies -- remain committed to the left.
The root causes of the gap stem from preferences when countries developed their first road rules, says Peter Kincaid, an Australia-based author of "The Rule of the Road," which analyzes world traffic patterns.
Mr. Kincaid says American drivers of horse-drawn carriages tended to ride their horses, or walk alongside them, on the left-hand side of their vehicles so they could wield whips with their right hands. That made it necessary to lead carriages down the right side of the road so drivers could be nearer the center of the street.
A handful of countries have switched over the years, mainly to match up with neighbors that had different standards. Several former British colonies in Africa, including Nigeria, went from left to right in the decades after World War II. Sweden switched sides, from left to right, in 1967, while Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, did the same in 1970 for reasons that even today remain unclear.
Since the 1970s, says Mr. Kincaid, international road rules have remained largely the same -- until Samoa.
With only about 200,000 people and a handful of traffic lights in downtown Apia, Samoa is the western neighbor of American Samoa, an American territory. It is known for its close proximity to the international date line, which makes it possible for some visitors to arrive in Samoa the day before they left.
Samoa settled on right-hand traffic in the early 1900s, when it was under German control. But doubters long thought it made more sense to line up with Australia and New Zealand, and the prime minister agreed, unveiling his plan in 2007.
The idea caught on in some villages, where residents figured it would become easier to get old cars from relatives.
"In the beginning it will be hard, but we'll learn -- we're not stupid," says Leau Apisaloma, a 54-year-old village chief who collects entrance fees from visitors at a beach an hour from Apia.
In Apia, though, opponents are determined to fight the change. Having just taken delivery of an expensive Toyota Tundra from America in late 2006, local lawyer Toleafoa Solomona Toailoa shifted the resistance into high gear. With allies, he formed PASS and helped lead two protest marches, including one featuring a petition with more than 30,000 signatures.
The government refused to budge. Mr. Toleafoa launched his own political party, with plans to contest the next election in 2011. Supporters also took the plan to court, on the grounds that it breaches citizens' right to life by making Samoan roads too dangerous. The case is pending.
With the deadline approaching, the government is speeding ahead. It has added road humps to slow traffic and erected signs that, when unveiled Sept. 7, will remind drivers to stay left. In a TV address about the road change last week, the prime minister warned that "the only thing to fear is fear itself." He listed a series of other steps, including declaring Sept. 7 and 8 national holidays. The government has also set up a "training area" near a sports stadium where drivers can practice the fine art of driving on the left side of the road.
One recent Sunday morning, a bus was seen barreling down the right side of the road in the training area, the driver apparently oblivious to the fact that it was the wrong side. After nearly running head-on into a sport-utility vehicle, the bus driver swerved then returned to the wrong side of the road and chugged on.
[They could always do like my grandfather told me.
"I only use half the road; right down the middle."]