Left Side Story

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

It happened to me; it can happen to you.

Pulling out of a gas station in Tasmania, Australia, onto the A2 road skirting the island's north coast with no other traffic in sight, I accelerate briskly, shifting the 900 Diversion into fifth gear. We settle into a comfortable cruising speed and I'm thinking about the meat pie I'll have for lunch when...

A pickup truck (called a "ute" in these parts) is heading straight for me on "my" side of the road. For a long second I can't work out what's wrong with this picture. Instinct (the incorrect one) kicks in, and I push the Yamaha to my right, onto the shoulder. Simultaneously, the ute veers too, going head-on left. I'm staring at the fast-approaching "roo" bars on the front of the truck's hood when the driver clues in and swerves back on the road. It was close - way too close.

By now, I've worked it out. Although I've been riding in Australia for a full week, a lapse in concentration allowed my "muscle memory" to take over. I'm on the wrong side of the road.

Vehicles in more countries than you may know drive left. As well as Australasia, "links fahren" is the rule in Japan, India, the West Indies, much of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the country that spread the idea, the UK. Even in a protectorate of the US (the Virgin Islands), you'll find cars (with left-side steering wheels) being driven on the left. Assuming everyone in the world owned a car, roughly two billion people would go left, four billion right. So the lefties can't be ignored.

Bikes, of course, work fine on either side. That's part of the problem. In most cases, (but not in the USVI), the position of the steering wheel in a car is an instant reminder; not so on a bike. There's no cue to remind you of your correct orientation on the road. So, pay attention! The danger doesn't usually crop up when you first make the switch. But it may after a few days. Once you're relaxed and your concentration drifts (to Aussie meat pies, for example), that's when mistakes happen. Complacency is a killer!

So, what are some of the other things to look out for in left-leaning countries?

  1. The "crown" of the road goes the other way. Therefore, right turns generally have an adverse camber, and left turns have a favorable camber. That affects traction, especially if you "favor" leaning one way or the other. On bends going to the right, getting too close to the centerline could entail getting swiped by an oncoming truck.
  2. Turning onto a divided highway at an intersection can be confusing. If you're used to riding on the right, it's natural to look left first to check for approaching traffic. In left-driving countries, the opposite applies. Again, concentration is needed to avoid "muscle memory" collusion in a collision.
  3. Hand signals work differently. In the UK, for example, hand signals as well as turn signal lights are recommended. But a right turn or "slowing down" signal requires taking your right hand off the bars, in which case you briefly have no front brake or throttle control. Sorry, there's no equivalent for the North American "raised left hand" right turn signal.
  4. When you angle park, note the curvature of the crown. Typically, your bike will lean further to the left on its side stand than it will in right-leaning countries.
  5. In many left-driving countries, parking is allowed on either side of the road. But that means cars will sometimes pull out in front and come at you to cross into their lane. Don't get spooked and swing right or you'll become a hood ornament!
  6. There are many more traffic circles (roundabouts) in left-driving countries. They're a real boon to all of us who appreciate efficient traffic flow, and they're fun to ride around fast. There are only two rules (unless otherwise marked): take the roundabout clockwise; and give way to traffic already in the circle - so look to your right on approach.
  7. When riding in India, all bets are off. "Might is right" and "the devil take the hindmost." Watch out for trucks, cars, bicycles, goats, cows, chickens, pedestrians, potholes, bricks - and ride with your thumb resting on the horn button!

Another casualty of riding on the left is the Biker Wave, that coolly nonchalant flick given with your clutch hand to acknowledge an oncoming rider. In order to do the wave, you'd have to use your throttle/brake hand: not a good idea. Instead, bikers in lefty countries have developed The Nod. Rather than moving with a straight up-down flick of the helmet, the head is tilted down and right toward the oncoming bike. It's subtle, and you might miss it if you're not looking for it. Practice the "nod" after seeing how other riders do it and you'll soon look like a local!

Unrestricted lane splitting - the holy grail of urban motorcycling - is de facto legal in the UK. If there are any rules about it, they're not enforced. Waiting in line with the "cages" is disdained, and riders squeeze along the centerline between lanes of cars, or along the curb to get to the front of the line before the light changes. It's not just tolerated by most drivers, it's expected: Should you stay in lane, chances are you'll find a wing mirror nudging your elbow.

Lane splitting when the traffic is stationary is relatively safe, unless someone opens a door in your face. In moving traffic, though, it can be extremely dangerous. Cars in heavy traffic will often move over to let you through, but you'll also find drivers changing lanes without looking. In fast traffic, and at night, it can be deadly...

Having just collected a Sprint ST from Triumph's Hinckley plant, I made my way through Leicester's evening city traffic, following a rider, probably a student (scruffy backpack over his shoulders) on an old Suzuki. He obviously knew the road well, and though I tried to follow his path as he weaved along the centerline, his nerve was too much for me, and I quickly fell behind. Out of town on the two-lane A6 toward Market Harborough in a solid line of cars, there's no street lighting, and the night is black. Suddenly brake lights glare ahead, and the traffic stops abruptly in both directions.

Gingerly, I squeezed the Sprint around the line in fear of what I'd find. Sadly, the rider, presumably clipped by an oncoming pickup now sitting on the shoulder, lay sprawled in the road, the Suzuki on its side in a puddle of oil fifty feet farther on...