I have been driving since my mid-teens, and I’ve always considered myself a good driver. Of course, I went through that phase that many young males do—where no speed is too fast—but I fortunately came through it mostly unscathed. I didn’t give a second thought to driving in Ireland.
Driving on the left is difficult.
Driving in general is difficult, but after half a lifetime of doing it, it’s easy to forget just how hard it is. If you’re planning to teach someone to drive, I suggest going on holiday somewhere in Ireland, or the UK, or the Caribbean, or Australia, or one of the other 76 countries and territories that drive on the left side. It’s like being a beginner all over again.
You might assume that the hardest part is remembering to drive on the left. Over the course of two weeks, I have twice made a left-hand turn onto an empty street and ended up on the right side. N quickly reminded me, though, and it was easily remedied. For me, staying left hasn’t been much trouble.
Where is the middle?
This was the hardest thing, and it’s what reminded me of being a beginner. Orienting yourself within your lane is incredibly hard to do. It takes time to get used to looking out from the left half of your car, with the middle to your right, keeping your car (not you) centered in your lane.
Now flip all of that.
You are on the right side of the car, and the middle is to your left. It took frequent reminders from N to avoid drifting to the left and off the road—into bushes, kerbs, or parked cars. It’s incredibly frustrating to have to relearn such a basic skill. It takes a lot of patience, and a very brave passenger to pull it off.
I can drive stick.
I learned how to drive using a stick shift, and it remains my favorite way to drive. In Ireland—and much of Europe—the default, cheapest cars to hire have a manual transmission. Great!
Except you’ll be doing the shifting with your left hand and steering with your right. Aside from long motorway drives and the occasional 10-and-2 (or is it 9-and-3?) steering, I have always driven with my left hand. Switching duties was a big adjustment.
The hardest part of shifting, in my opinion, is when you’re slowing down for a curve, signaling (on the left side of the steering wheel), watching traffic (remember—on the right), looking for pedestrians, turning, and downshifting. In these moments, I kept finding myself reaching for the shifter with my right hand, in the space between my leg and the door. There’s no shifter there!
At least the pedals are the same, and I didn’t have to relearn how to feather the gas and clutch on a steep hill.
On the importance of units
The largest motorways in Ireland are all 120! Of course, that’s in km/h. After a few years of driving, we get a pretty good sense of the difference between driving 25 MPH and 70 MPH. But what does it feel like to slow down to 50 km/h as you approach a small town?
For the first week or so, I found myself frequently peeking at the speedometer, much more often than I do in the US. This was compounded by two design flaws of our hired Volkswagen Up:
- The speedometer is largely obscured by the steering wheel. I found myself changing the tilt just so that I could see my speed (uncomfortably high on motorways to reveal the 100 at the top, back down on slower streets so that, you know, I could actually turn).
- The car doesn’t have cruise, so I couldn’t just set it and forget it.
And I wasn’t even monitoring the speedometer to make sure I wasn’t going too fast; quite the contrary! I’m convinced that Ireland uses a road’s speed limit to record the fastest speed ever sustained without crashing. Curvy, bumpy, 1-1/2 lane roads consistently had 80 km/h (50 MPH) speed limits posted. It’s like a dare!
Once I got used to all of that, we crossed into Northern Ireland. In case you’re unaware, Northern Ireland is part of the UK, where they use MPH. Yay, familiarity! Of course, the car only has km/h, so I was constantly trying to multiply by 5/3 (Is that even accurate?! I was thinking) to make the conversion.
Oh, and none of Northern Ireland’s streets actually have speed limit signs, so N literally Googled “UK motorway speed limit” from my phone as we were hurtling down the motorway. Whee!
A note to pedestrians: you don’t get off easy, either.
We were in Dublin for nearly a week before we first hired a car. This gave me ample, much-appreciated opportunity as a pedestrian to get a preview of left-side driving.
The most important thing to remember is to look the correct direction before stepping off the pavement (British for sidewalk). This should be easy—we all learned to “look both ways” before crossing the street. In reality, though, adults tend to just look where we expect the traffic to be. Who has time to look for traffic going the wrong way?
If you’re not careful, though, you’ll look left as you step off the kerb and right in front of a bus (a car would be no big deal: they’re all tiny, anyway). Fortunately, many of Dublin’s crossings have instructions on the street that say, “LOOK RIGHT” (and occasionally, when appropriate, “LOOK LEFT”).
One other peculiarity as a pedestrian is getting into the left side of the bus—it just seems backwards.
Totally worth it!
The initial frustration was short-lived. Before long, I was truly enjoying the drives around beautiful Ireland.
And Ireland has roundabouts! Everywhere! If you’ve only seen them in town centres, you can’t possibly understand my excitement. Imagine approaching an intersection at 55 MPH, glancing ahead to see no cars coming ’round, and barely slowing down as you pass through it and on your way. From every direction! Check it out:
Every major intersection was like this! If you like rolling stops, you will be giddy flying about, around roundabouts.