Mountain Wheels: Down Under driving rules prove quite exciting, I reckon
In a slight detour from the regular routine of increasingly aggravating Interstate 70 jaunts, I opted to spend a week in Western Australia — a good opportunity to check out left-side-of-the-road driving culture on literally the other side of the Earth.
From Perth to the Southwestern coastal communities of Bunbury, Margaret River and Albany, it was an eye-opening chance to see fabulous beaches, narrow rainforest highways and all of the peculiar joy of warning signs for kangaroos, bandicoots and possums.
And unlike the very urban experience one has in Perth — a Denver-sized city with a Vancouver, B.C., vibe and reasonably heavy traffic — heading out to drive in the barely populated stretches of the Southwest was probably a safer move.
I really wanted to spend some right-hand steering wheel drive time in what they consider a full-sized ute — the catch-all name for our midsized pickup trucks — but I realized that even the Holden Colorado, my cousin’s Aussie version of a Chevy Colorado, was going to be way too much vehicle.
Instead, I spent two days in a right-hand drive Kia Cerato five-door hatchback, the Australian rendition of the Kia Forte we get in the U.S. market. This proved to be a wise choice as I drove about 590 miles in 36 hours on rain-soaked early winter highways of varying sizes.
If you’ve never had the chance to drive on the left side of the road, I cannot say I would entirely recommend it, as it requires a conceptual shift that, combined with the jet lag from the 35-hour travel time to Oz, certainly kept me on my toes.
Conveniently, Thrifty Car Rentals had a copy of “A Guide to Driving on Western Australia Roads,” a government safety brochure produced to reinforce the subtleties of Giving Way to the left (versus right-of-way), general roundabout traffic etiquette and more nuanced suggestions for bonkers desert driving in the actual Outback.
I got lucky and had absolutely depopulated highways — occasionally no cars for 10 or 15 minutes at a stretch, not unlike driving in the deserts of eastern Oregon or northern Nevada — so the only real issue was keeping perilously close to a center line on the right side of the car.
This also became increasingly problematic as I headed into national park territory and normal, American-width highways and shoulders suddenly degraded into seemingly 6-foot-wide lanes on a highly crowned, slippery road with red mud and giant trees in the ditches. Plus a sudden influx of those full-blown Holden Colorado utes, all pulling full-sized camper caravans.
The Aussies are a traveling bunch and the endless varieties of trucks, truck campers, trailers and odd-looking, micro-sized Japanese RVs was fascinating.
The winner, however, was the bloke in his ultra-modded double-cab Toyota Land Cruiser conversion that was almost literally out of Mad Max — geared up and ready for the gnarliest expedition up to the often roadless and sometimes lawless Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea.
I also took a deep breath each time I encountered one of the behemoth twin-trailer commercial rigs but was happy not to be in the dry backcountry of the north, where rules dictate the often three-trailer road trains have right of way, and you need to give way.
I’d long heard that Australia was the land of intensely heavy enforcement of highway speed limits, but this was a double-edged sword: On major highways, we encountered Western European-styled average speed cameras (which send you a photo radar ticket if the computers suggest you traveled too quickly between two fixed points), but in the middle of nowhere, people also belligerently tailgated me before passing me in their giant utes at more than 100 mph. That part was reminiscent of Colorado.
Australian police also do not mess around with DUI rules, subjecting every driver at every traffic stop to an involuntary breathalyzer screening and offering very little flexibility about a 0.05 blood alcohol limit.
Other good guidelines? Pedestrians have absolutely no rights in Australia, minus occasional highly marked urban zebra crossings (think stripes), and I was warned other drivers would crash into me if I was dumb enough to slow down for a jaywalker.
And the aforementioned kangaroos? Totally real, as it turns out — very active at dusk, prone to jumping in front of your vehicle but also for sale in the meat department of the local grocery store.
I now will examine all the lyrics of Men at Work songs more closely and be very happy with a steering wheel on the left side of the cars that I drive.
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