I never really planned it this way, but despite being a proud American, I’ve been driving on a sort of regular basis right-hand drive cars for over 10 years now. I started with my lovely (if currently forlorn) Reliant Scimitar, and now I also have an imported Nissan Pao from Japan. I’ve been driving on the wrong side of the car for a good while now, and I get asked about it often enough that it seems like I may as well share some of what I’ve learned.
At this point in human history, most of the world drives cars with the steering wheel on the left side. But there are a few weird holdouts, for various historic reasons, like England, Australia and Japan that have cars with steering wheels on the right. This can get tricky if you’re driving one on vacation, or if like me, you have a weird import in a new and foreign land.
For many people, even many people very familiar with cars, the idea of driving on the opposite side of the car is something they regard as a huge, sometimes insurmountable hurdle. That’s why some people will go so far as to spend a lot of money converting RHD cars to LHD.
I don’t think it makes sense to convert a car from RHD to LHD; it’s not illegal to drive a RHD car in America (those postal LLVs do it all the time) and, really, it’s just not that hard to get used to. It’s even kind of fun.
Once, I drove my English Reliant Scimitar as a daily driver, to and from work, for years. Now that I work at home and go without showers for days and live like the offspring of a mole and an internet-addicted hermit, I don’t need to commute, but I’ve been using my Nissan Pao for almost all of my near-daily driving needs since I’ve gotten it. Don’t be afraid. You can master it, too.
If your RHD car is a manual, you may find that when you start driving it, your brain will want to flip the shift pattern horizontally in your mind, putting first where third is and so on. This isn’t how it works.
Thankfully, shift patterns are the same, and pedal arrangement is the same. Yes, it’s a little weird moving the lever to the opposite side of the car to get into first instead of pulling the lever close to your knee, but you’ll get used to it.
I know you’re shifting with a hand you’re not used to shifting with, but, in my experience, the motions are simple enough that you’ll do fine even if it’s your non-dominant hand. You’re just pulling and pushing a ball on a stick.
Just be prepared for a couple luggy starts in third gear before your brain adapts.
If you go back-and-forth between LHD and RHD cars (like I do), this will likely be your biggest annoyance. The part that I almost always mess up after going from one to the other is using the wrong hand to indicate a turn and turning on the wipers instead of the blinkers.
Just try to remember that the turn indicator stalk is almost always the one by the door. I’m trying to think of an example where an indicator stalk isn’t the stalk on the outside, and I really can’t think of one. Maybe there’s a car like that, but if that’s what you drive, none of this will be bothering you in the least.
You’ll mess this up sometimes as your muscle memories fight with your current situation, but luckily the consequences are pretty minor.
Because you’ll look so cool in your awesome British or Japanese or Australian or South African or Indian or whatever car, you’ll very likely be getting more passengers to ride with you.
Allow them some moments to talk about how weird it is to be sitting there with no steering wheel, let them squeal and get nervous at certain turns where it sure as hell feels like they should be driving, and just generally be accepting that it feels weird for them.
But you need to remember that your passenger will have to exit the car into traffic if you drop them off. This isn’t always ideal, so think it through before you get to your destination; you may want to look for a convenient driveway or side street to let them out.
Most roads have a cross-section that’s high in the middle, and slopes down to the sides. This is the road’s “crown” and it’s there mostly to help with drainage.
When you’re driving on the side of the car you’re supposed to, you’re close to the center of the road, and as such the crown isn’t all that noticable. When you’re on the wrong side, you’re toward the outer edge of the road, and you’ll feel the road crown much more—how much depends on how dramatic the road’s crown slope is.
There’s some roads near me where I feel like I’m tilted over at a 45-degree angle, and some where I don’t notice it at all.
The trick here is to be aware of it and know it’s not a problem. If you feel the tilt and panic, your instinct will be to drive back to where the road is more level, which is the middle of the street, which is not where you want to be. In some ways that’s the hardest thing about switching to a RHD: centering yourself on the road properly, in a way that you maybe aren’t used to.
This is just one of those things you need to get used to; if it feels weird, keep an eye out your right window. Be sure you’re not getting too far away from the road’s edge and into the middle or even the oncoming traffic lane on a two-way road.
This is good advice in general, but even more so when you’re not doing things the same as everyone else. Your passenger-side outside mirror is more important than on a LHD car here—you’ll want to be sure to check it before changing from the right lane to the left, for example, and when passing just take that extra beat to check the blind spots.
Really, this will just make you a more careful driver, and that’s not so bad, is it?
For certain maneuvers, like making a left turn against oncoming traffic, you may just want to move your head to the left to roughly position it where it’d be if you were driving on the left. Lean over and look. It’s not hard.
The unprotected left turn where you have to yield to oncoming traffic is probably the trickiest RHD maneuver, but it’s not even that terrible. You can do it.
If you find yourself habitually crabbing over to the middle of the road, there’s an easy solution: look out the right window to the curb, find a comfortable distance from the edge, and hug it.
That way, you’ll know you’re not halfway into the lane next to you, and after a while this will become second nature.
Now, this doesn’t mean getting crazy close to the curb—don’t be afraid to judge your distance by looking right at that curb. You may feel a need to overcompensate by hugging really tight to the right, but, remember, your car hasn’t grown wider, you’re just not seeing the same side your used to.
Use your passenger-side mirror to spot where your left side is in relation to the lane markers. Check that periodically and soon you’ll learn the feel of it.
When I was daily driving my Scimitar to work, I was working in an office building that had a parking garage with a magnetic-card-operated gate. That means I needed to physically touch a card to a sensor for the gate to open, and this sensor was way on the other side of the car. How do you do that?
Easy! With tools! I got an extendible metal pointer, the kind people used to use before laser pointers, and used a binder clip on the end to secure my key card.
I have crank-operated windows, so there was still some leaning involved, but once the window was open, I just used my cyborg extend-o-arm to touch the card to the reader, and that was it.
So, if you have a RHD car and need to get cards from ticket kiosks, I suggest keeping one of those old-people grabby arm things on the passenger floorboard, or something similar.
The way a RHD car and drive-throughs interact is completely dependent on one question: are you alone? If you are, then it’s kind of an ass-pain. Not impossible, just awkward.
Now, if you have a friend with you, everything changes. Because a person in the left-side passenger’s seat and a driver on the right is the absolute utopian ideal of drive-through experiences.
The passenger handles the transaction, the bag management, the straw insertion, the wallet re-packing, trash consolidation, everything, while the driver just needs to drive. It works out wonderfully!
If there’s an assassin out to get you, and you’re driving along with the sun reflecting off the windscreen, and they take a shot at you as you drive toward them, chances are they’ll shoot into the (hopefully) empty seat on the left, and not where you’re driving on the right! It’s not likely, but if this happens even once, it’ll be worth it for you.
Also, when you park on the side of the road, you don’t have to walk into traffic.
I hope this helps a bit. The point is that driving on the side opposite from everyone else is not impossible by any stretch, and if you really want that Nissan Silvia or a Tata Nano or a Hillman Imp, then, dammit, go get yourself one, and drive it all over America, loud and proud.
Oh, and if you’re in a RHD country and are thinking about importing a LHD car, this should all still apply. Just read the article backwards, I guess.