March 07, 2004

Walk on the Left, Please

A lot of the travel literature about Australia refers either seriously or in jest to the number of things that can kill you Down Under. The list always includes the usual suspects: sharks, snakes, spiders, jellyfish, and crocodiles.

In reality, deadly encounters with these creatures are extremely rare. We haven't even seen any of them yet in our nearly two months in Australia. What these sources neglect to mention is that the real terror -- for those unaccustomed to it -- is learning to cope with driving on the left side of the road. This is especially true in Melbourne, where the extensive tram traffic in the downtown core has led to the development of a totally unique style of right turn (the equivalent to a left turn in Canada and other right-hand-drive countries, in that you have to cross oncoming traffic). The online Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy project has an entertaining description of the turn, and Bill Bryson, humour travel writer, describes it thusly:

"Melbourne may not have a Harbour Bridge or an Opera House like Sydney's but it has something in its way no less singular. It has the world's most bizarre right turns. If you are driving in central Melbourne and you wish to go right (and bear in mind that you are driving on the left), you don't get in the middle lane, but rather pull over to the left-hand curb -- as far away as possible from where you want to be -- and sit there for an indeterminate period (in my case until all the clubs and restaurants have shut and everyone has gone home for the night) and make your turn from there. It's all to do with keeping out of the way of the trams -- Melbourne's other specialty -- which go down the middle of the road and can't have turning cars blocking their way."

This is a diagram of the famous "hook turn" from the Victoria government's Road Rules gazette. I'll also take a picture of the corresponding road sign and post it here later. You can also see a pretty neat Flash animation of the hook turn, "with a few realistic drivers thrown in for good measure," here.

To tell the truth of the matter, learning to drive on the left side of the road wasn't actually too bad. What has proved much more difficult is simply walking around. Being a pedestrian typically commands less focus, so I'm finding it's harder to get better at it. As a result, I still get confused about which way to look when crossing an intersection. Perennially bewildered, I just look in all directions to make sure. I must look very paranoid to other people.

As if all of that wasn't tricky enough, I noticed something else after a few days in Melbourne. Not only do Australians drive on the left side, but they walk on the left side (when crowds and such necessitate informal foot traffic rules)! Not too surprising, I suppose, but needless to say I'm no better at this than I am at at figuring out which way to look at intersections.

The end result of all this is that my attempts to navigate Melbourne on foot no doubt loosely resemble a Mr. Bean or Monty Python sketch.

Posted by anatole at March 7, 2004 11:57 PM

Diagram, please.

Posted by: Madhava at March 9, 2004 03:01 AM

Done! The entry has been updated with a diagram and a link to a Flash animation.

Posted by: Anatole at March 9, 2004 10:42 AM

Wow. I'm grateful that it's very unlikely I'll ever have to drive in Australia. It's worrying enough that Mike's threatening to take me out to a parking lot and teach me to drive standard.

On the other hand, looking the wrong way for traffic when I was in London wasn't something I had a problem with. Almost every intersection was painted with a big "LOOK RIGHT" warning. It was so large and scary and bespoke of so many innocent tourist deaths that it went straight to the basic survival instincts area of my brain and stayed there. (Who knew I even had one?) Of course, then when I came to a one way street it was a nasty shock...

I think the moral of the story is that traffic is evil everywhere in the world. (Except Halifax.)

Posted by: Tyla at March 10, 2004 01:05 AM