Backward Yank Drivers! Let’s Go to the Left Lane

I spent several weeks lately in countries that drive on the left, and a few times almost got run over from looking the wrong way as I stepped into the street, and when I was driving in New Zealand, two or three times I turned into the wrong lane of traffic–happily, not with any damaging result. Now that I’m back, my experience is reversed: I nearly drove into oncoming traffic on my first day home. I’m adjusting, but slowly.

I might have put this out of mind, but then I saw my niece Eliot, who’d just come back from Scotland, struggling with the same readjustment, and I realized how widespread the problem is, especially as the world becomes a smaller and smaller place. And if you just think about it, the remedy is fairly straightforward: change the American system over to driving on the left.

At first blush, that sounds like a daunting challenge, but I don’t think it would be that hard. Americans are a very positive, can-do people. Once they understood the benefits, it could happen very quickly.

The first obvious issue is: Do you do it all at once or gradually?

I think the logical answer is gradually. You’re changing deeply ingrained habits and “Well, that’s the way my dad did it” attitudes. Reflexive attitudes, unthinking ones. You’d need to sell the change to the public, and that would take some time. The only way to do that would be to show how well it could work in a large American metropolis.

Let’s say you began in Atlanta (if for no other reason than the South has always had an Anglophile soft spot). You’d want to set aside a three-day weekend to convert city streets and highways, possibly four days. This is a more challenging technical problem than you might think. You’d have to switch the street signs, the stop signs and so forth from the right-hand side of the street to the left, and change the wording on many of those same signs. “No Right on Red,” for instance, would become “No Left on Red.” Traffic lights would be turned around to face the opposite direction. In some cases, they might have to be rewired.

But a solid crew of highway workers, assisted by volunteer squads from a civic-minded drive-on-the-left group, could make short work of all that. I’m anticipating a massive civic effort on behalf of driving on the left, with everything that implies: a sophisticated logo, an appealing mascot, and all this unfolding months in advance of the actual changeover. You’d want a very upbeat promotional campaign emphasizing the positive aspects of the change. Needless to say, you would need a peppy slogan and a jingle.

I don’t think it’s possible to underestimate the effect of a good jingle on people’s habits. My first beer was National Beer because I grew up listening to the commercials between innings of baseball games:

National Beer, National Beer,

You’ll like the taste of National Beer;

And while we’re about it,

We’re proud to say,

It’s brewed on the shores

Of the Chesapeake Bay.

If that sounds simple, you’re right. A catchy jingle along similar lines would make driving on the left seem not just the right thing to do, but fun. You’d combine the carrot with the stick–an ad campaign where people like my niece could speak plainly and honestly against a simple backdrop about the dangers of the present system.

Those who wanted to help–and I think they’d be legion–would get red vests and hats and slickers that would make them feel like they were in on the ground floor of something exciting. You’d have a gleaming new yellow truck delivering fresh boxes of buttons and bumper stickers that said, “Drive on the Left! You Know It’s Better!” with a target date underneath. Or “Drive on the Left! It’s Easier!” (I leave the slogans to pithier minds.)

As for a mascot, my first thought was a penguin, which would hold up its left flipper and wave us along, with a goofy smile on its face to disarm even the harshest critics.

It would surprise you how many civic-minded people are out there just waiting to help. My sister-in-law is the type that, when there’s a problem facing the community and a strong public interest at stake, is always there, selflessly giving of her time. People like my sister-in-law would turn out early on a Saturday morning to dig up stop signs and move them, or paint new signs, or hand out brochures at lights and calmly explain the change.

The next question is: If people are only driving on the left inside Atlanta, what happens if they want to leave the city?

The logical answer is transition or “criss-cross” points at the city borders, with stoplights and large slanting arrows painted on the street. For the first couple of weeks, you’d post an officer at these places–deploying them, with the ceremonial crash of a champagne bottle, on Sunday morning, so people could adjust to the system before Monday-morning rush hour. They’d wear colorful sashes with the logo, which by then everyone would know.

The beauty of the plan is, no one has to turn around or change their itinerary. Everyone’s still going in the same direction; they’d merely have to cross over opposing traffic to get to their new lane, and vice versa. In some cases, this might entail building overpasses–yes, at considerable expense–but the key would be to do so in advance, so that the weekend in question would go smoothly.

And, of course, all these criss-cross points would be temporary. Before long we’d move on to the rest of the country, once Atlanta had shown how doable it was, and how effective.

Obviously, that would require sales. The President would have to get behind it; perhaps more importantly, the First Lady (just as Lady Bird Johnson convinced the country to beautify American highways). She would work closely with a national chairman, someone gutsy and highly effective, a Robert Rubin type. Throw in a popular role model like Magic Johnson or Charles Barkley, and people would get swept up in the excitement. Cities might actually compete to go first.

Inevitably, the usual host of critics and naysayers would come out of the woodwork. Just as predictably, they would light on the plan’s shortcomings, and once it was implemented they could surely point to some confusion and a few fender-benders, some raised voices and frayed nerves. But the great majority of people would see these types of problems as par for the course. I think the general feeling would be, “Hey, we can do that!”

Ordinary Americans would get behind the idea when they realized that they were leading the world toward greater efficiency and uniformity, something we all want. Before long, you’d have committees forming in cities, with local celebrities. You’d have a sort of movement, and people would want to be a part of it. There’s nothing wrong with a little rah-rah if the cause is something you can actually believe in.

There you have it. I’m not saying it’s completely figured out, but it’s damned close, and I’m open to suggestions. Maybe the mascot shouldn’t be a penguin; some might say it should be a bear. (More American; and the obvious slogan, “Bear Left …. “) We can talk about all of that.