Driving on the “wrong side” of the road in Ireland

We went to Ireland a few weeks ago, a journey which I might describe in more detail in a future post. Because I really like driving, and automotive tourism, one of the most interesting aspects of the trip was renting a right-hand-drive car and driving on the left side of the road. I want to share my experiences here, as I hope they might be helpful.

In the weeks leading up to our trip, I was pretty terrified of the idea of driving on the left side. I imagined making mistakes when turning and getting confused in roundabouts, primarily. These aspects were interesting, but it turns out that I generally got the hang of that pretty quickly. There were a couple times in a small village at night when I drove for a short bit on a the wrong side before realizing my mistake, but overall this wasn’t much of a problem. Things just became more deliberate. Every time I turned, I had to do mental geometry to determine which lane to turn into, and which way to look for oncoming traffic (this is a problem on foot as well). I noticed that I brought this strategy home with me—for a couple days after returning to the US, I found that I was overthinking my turns.

The bigger problem, which I totally failed to anticipate, was judging the left side of the car and my position in the lane. Over the past 20 years of driving on the right side of the road, I’ve learned to position my driver’s seat over the lane, and I possess a decent mental model of the whereabouts of the right side of my car. In fact, I drive a truck, so this is even more important. A lot of the driving in Ireland is on tiny country lanes, sometimes with no lane markings, but usually with a wall or hedge right next to the road. So encountering oncoming traffic is terrifying at first and mildly unsettling after that. The first night we had the car, I had a long white-knuckled drive in the dark, contending with the occasional tour bus or truck.

Renting a car in Ireland is crucial. I’m not the type to ride around on tour buses and there isn’t train service to get to the important destinations. So, I have some suggestions:

  1. We were there in the off season. This is probably preferred in terms of driving. We encountered the occasional tour bus, but it would be much worse at the height of tourist season.
  2. Purchase the super insurance. Some rental companies have zero deductible insurance available. We rented from Dan Dooley, a local company, and we would have been liable for only EUR 100 if we happened to lose a mirror.
  3. Speaking of mirrors, make sure to point out all prior damage when checking out the car (of course this advise goes for all car rentals). The guy that looked at our car noted serious damage to the driver’s mirror and also marked damage to the passenger mirror, a move that might have been out of generosity, as I didn’t see anything wrong with it. Curb damage to the wheels is also quite conceivable, so check for this as well.
  4. We rented at the Dublin airport and then immediately headed for the west coast. This was ideal, as my first couple hours of driving was primarily on the highway.
  5. On the subject of highways, remember that you should cruise in the left lane and pass on the right.
  6. Make sure to adjust the seats, mirrors, and steering wheel, and learn the layout of the controls before leaving the lot. You’ll have enough on your mind without trying to figure out the windshield wipers when it starts raining, and in Ireland it will start raining.

So which is better, left-hand or right-hand drive? They are fairly equal, except one usability issue that I noticed on Irish cars. While some parts of the dash are mirrored, as in the case of the headlight switch, the turn signal is still on the left side of the steering wheel. I found that this makes it tricky to signal while shifting to accelerate out of the roundabout, as the stick also requires the left hand. I read a piece about driving a Nissan Skyline that states that the turn signal is on the right side of the steering wheel in Asian cars, which would probably be more usable in general but even less compatible with an American’s mental model.

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