Shifting the Right of Way to the Left Leaves Some Samoans Feeling Wronged

Government Calls Traffic-Rule Switch 'Common Sense,'

but It Sparks Road Rage


APIA, Samoa -- Sometime in the early morning hours of Sept. 7,

residents of this small Pacific island nation will stop their cars,

take a deep breath, and do something most people would think

is suicidal: Start driving on the other side of the road.

Samoa is about to become what's believed to be the first nation

since the 1970s to order its drivers to switch from one side

of the road to the other.

That's spawned an islandwide case of road rage.

Opponents have organized two of the biggest protests

in Samoan history, and a new activist group -- People

Against Switching Sides, or PASS -- has

geared up to fight the plan.

Left Side Drivers                  Right Side Drivers                
India               952,107,694    China, Mainland   1,210,004,956   
Indonesia 206,611,600 United States 265,562,845
Pakistan 129,275,660 Brazil 162,661,214
Japan 125,449,703 Russia 148,178,487
Bangladesh 123,062,800 Nigeria 103,912,489
Thailand 58,851,357 Mexico 95,772,462
United Kingdom 58,489,975 Germany 83,536,115
South Africa 41,743,459 Philippines 74,480,848
Tanzania 29,058,470 Vietnam 73,976,973
Kenya 28,176,686 Iran 66,094,264
Nepal 22,094,033 Egypt 63,575,107
Uganda 20,158,176 Turkey 62,484,478
Malaysia 19,962,893 France 58,040,988
Sri Lanka 18,553,074 Italy 57,460,274
Australia 18,260,863 Ethiopia 57,171,662
Mozambique 17,877,927 Ukraine 50,864,009
Zimbabwe 11,271,314 Zaire 46,498,539
Malawi 9,452,844 Burma 45,975,625
Zambia 9,159,072 South Korea 45,482,291
Hong Kong 6,305,413 Spain 39,181,114
Papua New Guinea 4,394,537 Poland 38,642,565
Ireland 3,566,833 Colombia 36,813,161
New Zealand 3,547,983 Argentina 34,672,997
Singapore 3,396,924 Sudan 31,065,229
Jamaica 2,595,275 Morocco 29,779,156
Lesotho 1,970,781 Algeria 29,183,032
Bhutan 1,822,625 Canada 28,820,671
Namibia 1,677,243 Peru 24,523,408
Botswana 1,477,630 North Korea 23,904,124
Trinidad and Tobago 1,272,385 Uzbekistan 23,418,381
Mauritius 1,140,256 Afghanistan 22,664,136
Swaziland 998,730 Venezuela 21,983,188
Fiji 782,381 Romania 21,657,162
Cyprus 744,609 China, Taiwan 21,465,881
Guyana 712,091 Iraq 21,422,292
Macau 496,837 Saudi Arabia 19,409,058
Suriname 436,418 Ghana 17,698,271
Solomon Islands 412,902 Kazakstan 16,916,463
Malta 375,576 Syria 15,608,648
Brunei 299,939 Netherlands 15,568,034
Maldives 270,758 Ivory Coast 14,762,445
Bahamas, The 259,367 Chile 14,333,258
Barbados 257,030 Cameroon 14,261,557
Saint Lucia 157,862 Madagascar 13,670,507
Saint Vincent 118,344 Yemen 13,483,178
US Virgin Islands 97,120 Ecuador 11,466,291
Grenada 94,961 Guatemala 11,277,614
Dominica 82,926 Cuba 10,951,334
Kiribati 80,919 Cambodia 10,861,218
Seychelles 77,575 Burkina Faso 10,623,323
Antigua and Barbuda 65,647 Greece 10,538,594
Guernsey 62,920 Belarus 10,415,973
Bermuda 62,099 Angola 10,342,899
Saint Kitts and Nevis 41,369 Czech Republic 10,321,120
Cook Islands 19,561 Belgium 10,170,241
Turks and Caicos Islands 14,302 Hungary 10,002,541
British Virgin Islands 13,195 Serbia 9,979,116
Anguilla 10,424 Portugal 9,865,114
Nauru 10,273 Mali 9,653,261
Tuvalu 10,146 Somalia 9,639,151
Falkland Islands 2,758 Niger 9,113,001
Senegal 9,092,749
Tunisia 9,019,687
Sweden 8,900,954
Bulgaria 8,612,757
Dominican Republic 8,088,881
Austria 8,023,244
Azerbaijan 7,676,953
Guinea 7,411,981
Switzerland 7,207,060
Bolivia 7,165,257
Chad 6,976,845
Rwanda 6,853,359
Haiti 6,731,539
Burundi 5,943,057
Tajikistan 5,916,373
El Salvador 5,828,987
Benin 5,709,529
Honduras 5,605,193
Paraguay 5,504,146
Libya 5,445,436
Israel 5,421,995
Slovakia 5,374,362
Denmark 5,249,632
Georgia 5,219,810
Finland 5,105,230
Croatia 5,004,112
Laos 4,975,772
Sierra Leone 4,793,121
Togo 4,570,530
Kyrgyzstan 4,529,648
Moldova 4,463,847
Norway 4,383,807
Nicaragua 4,272,352
Jordan 4,212,152
Turkmenistan 4,149,283
Eritrea 3,909,628
Lebanon 3,776,317
Lithuania 3,646,041
Armenia 3,463,574
Costa Rica 3,463,083
Central African 3,274,426
Albania 3,249,136
Uruguay 3,238,952
United Arab Emirates 3,057,337
Bosnia and Herzegov. 2,656,240
Panama 2,655,094
Congo 2,527,841
Mongolia 2,496,617
Latvia 2,468,982
Mauritania 2,336,048
Oman 2,186,548
Liberia 2,109,789
Macedonia 2,104,035
Slovenia 1,951,443
Kuwait 1,950,047
Estonia 1,459,428
West Bank 1,427,741
Gambia, The 1,204,984
Gabon 1,172,798
Guinea-Bissau 1,151,330
Gaza Strip 923,940
Bahrain 590,042
Comoros 569,237
Qatar 547,761
Cape Verde 449,066
Equatorial Guinea 431,282
Djibouti 427,642
Luxembourg 415,870
Iceland 270,292
Western Sahara 222,631
Belize 219,296
Samoa 214,384
Vanuatu 177,504
Guam 156,974
Sao Tome 144,128
Micronesia 125,377
Andorra 72,766
American Samoa 63,786
Greenland 59,827
Marshall Islands 58,363
Northern Mariana 52,284
Monaco 31,719
Liechtenstein 31,122
Gibraltar 28,765
San Marino 24,521
Wallis and Futuna 14,659
Total             1,939,854,524    Total             3,824,562,670
34% 66%

The prime minister who hatched Samoa's scheme,

Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, refuses to do

a U-turn. Road-switch opponents are just trying

to rattle the government, he says.

He has compared a prominent opponent of

the switch to a local "avaava" fish -- a sea creature

that swims in shallow waters and

eats garbage, an insult in Samoan culture.

The main reason for Samoa's switch is that

two of its biggest neighbors, Australia and New Zealand,

drive on the left-hand side, whereas Samoa currently

drives on the right, as in the U.S.

By aligning with Australia and New Zealand,

the prime minister says, it will be easier for poor Samoans

to get cheap hand-me-down cars from

the 170,000 or so Samoans who live in those

two countries.

It could also help more people

escape tsunamis, says Mr. Tuilaepa.

It all "makes common sense," says Mr. Tuilaepa

in an interview in his office overlooking the Pacific Ocean

in the capital city of Apia.

Mr. Tuilaepa, who sports a wave of fluffy whitening hair

and wears flip-flops,

has run the country for more than a decade.

Opponents and some outside experts fear

the switch will turn many of Samoa's already-dangerous

roads into disaster zones.

Roads wind through mountainous jungle terrain

with sharp turns, few traffic lights and pedestrians

and dogs sharing the lanes.

Critics say the switch will add further confusion

with drivers likely to forget which side

they're supposed to be on.

Samoa Gears Up for a Driving Switch

On September 7, the tiny island nation in the South Pacific

will become what experts believe to be the first country since

the 1970s to change the direction in which cars drive.

It's the biggest news to hit Samoa in years and is causing waves.

The move will also add costs -- like carving new doors

into buses so passengers can get off on the opposite side

of the road -- that critics say are unnecessary in

a country heavily reliant on foreign aid.

For car owners, the switch is also expected to drive

the value of their vehicles off a cliff, since

about 14,000 of the country's 18,000 vehicles

are designed to drive on the right.

Although such cars will be allowed after the changeover,

they are likely to become less desirable.

"To be really quite frank, we find [the change] ridiculous,"

says Sina Retzlaff-Lima, whose Apia Rentals rental-car company

has 40 cars made for driving on the right side of the road.

Keep to the Left

Countries that use left-hand traffic account for about

30% of the world's population,

a sixth of its area and a quarter of its roads.

Below, the list.

The Bahamas
British Virgin Islands
Cayman Islands
Channel Islands
Christmas Island
Cocos (Keeling) Islands
Cook Islands
Falkland Islands
Hong Kong
Isle of Man
Kiribati (Gilbert Islands)
New Zealand
Nieu Island
Norfolk Island
Papua New Guinea
Pitcairn Island
St Helena
St Kitts-Nevits (-Anguilla)
St Lucia
St Vincent
Solomon Islands
South Africa
Sri Lanka
Tokelau Islands
Trinidad and Tobago
Turks and Caicos Islands
United Kingdom
Virgin Islands (U.S.)

Source: The Rule of the Road

Globally, about 70% of the world's population drives on the right-hand side

of the road. But other parts of the world -- including

many countries that were once British

colonies -- remain committed to the left.

The root causes of the gap stem from preferences

when countries developed their first road rules,

says Peter Kincaid, an Australia-based author of

"The Rule of the Road," which analyzes world traffic patterns.

Mr. Kincaid says American drivers of horse-drawn carriages

tended to ride their horses, or walk alongside them,

on the left-hand side of their vehicles so they could

wield whips with their right hands.

That made it necessary to lead carriages down

the right side of the road so drivers

could be nearer the center of the street.

A handful of countries have switched over the years,

mainly to match up with neighbors that had different standards.

Several former British colonies in Africa, including Nigeria,

went from left to right in the decades after

World War II. Sweden switched sides, from left to right,

in 1967, while Myanmar, formerly known as Burma,

did the same in 1970 for reasons

that even today remain unclear.

Since the 1970s, says Mr. Kincaid, international

road rules have remained largely

the same -- until Samoa.

With only about 200,000 people and a handful

of traffic lights in downtown Apia, Samoa

is the western neighbor of American Samoa,

an American territory.

It is known for its close proximity to the international

date line, which makes it possible

for some visitors to arrive in Samoa

the day before they left.

Samoa settled on right-hand traffic in the early 1900s,

when it was under German control.

But doubters long thought it made more sense to line up

with Australia and New Zealand,

and the prime minister agreed, unveiling his plan in 2007.

The idea caught on in some villages, where residents

figured it would become easier

to get old cars from relatives.

"In the beginning it will be hard, but

we'll learn -- we're not stupid," says Leau Apisaloma,

a 54-year-old village chief who

collects entrance fees from visitors at a beach an hour from Apia.

In Apia, though, opponents are determined to fight the change.

Having just taken delivery of an expensive Toyota Tundra

from America in late 2006,

local lawyer Toleafoa Solomona Toailoa shifted

the resistance into high gear.

With allies, he formed PASS and helped

lead two protest marches, including one

featuring a petition with more than 30,000 signatures.

Patrick Barta/The Wall Street Journal

The government refused to budge. Mr. Toleafoa

launched his own political party, with plans

to contest the next election in 2011.

Supporters also took the plan to court, on the grounds

that it breaches citizens' right to life by making Samoan

roads too dangerous. The case is pending.

With the deadline approaching, the government is

speeding ahead.

It has added road humps to slow traffic and erected

signs that, when unveiled Sept. 7,

will remind drivers to stay left.

In a TV address about the road change last week,

the prime minister warned that "the only thing

to fear is fear itself." He listed

a series of other steps, including declaring Sept. 7

and 8 national holidays.

The government has also set up a "training area" near

a sports stadium where drivers

can practice the fine art of driving on the left side of the road.

One recent Sunday morning, a bus was seen barreling

down the right side of the road in the training area,

the driver apparently oblivious to the fact that

it was the wrong side.

After nearly running head-on into a sport-utility vehicle,

the bus driver swerved then returned

to the wrong side of the road and chugged on.

Write to Patrick Barta at patrick.barta@wsj.com

Link here

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